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Who would have imagined that Sweden—of all countries—with its heavily unionized workforce, its social programs, its liberated sexual attitudes, its minimum wage of $18 per hour, and its 5 weeks of guaranteed paid vacation, would dare treat the United States the way….well, the way the United States treats Mexico?
Yet, bizarre as it sounds, that scenario is unfolding before our eyes. Based on what has occurred during the last three years at Ikea’s Danville, Virginia, manufacturing plant, it is now evident that Sweden regards the U.S. as little more than an advanced Third World nation—a geographical area capable of providing a reliable pool of low-wage workers to assemble Ikea’s furniture. They regard us the way we regard Mexico.
It was only three years ago that state and local officials offered the high-profile Swedish company $12 million dollars in tax breaks and subsidies to lure it to Virginia. For a region as economically strapped and desperate as Danville was, signing up a big-time, respected manufacturer like Ikea was considered a monumental coup. It was a dream come true.
But that dream soon turned into a nightmare. Indeed, Ikea has transformed itself from savior to villain. The company has done things in Danville that it never, ever would have considered doing back home in Sweden, not only because those things would have spoiled the company’s domestic image as an enlightened and munificent employer, but because, in fact, those things would’ve been violations of prevailing labor laws.
To put it bluntly, Ikea’s Danville plant has turned into a grotesque, Scandinavian version of a modern day sweatshop. When the IAM (International Association of Machinists) made a run at unionizing the facility, Ikea went into a full-blown defensive posture, hiring the law firm of Jackson Lewis, an aggressive, anti-labor outfit that specializes in keeping unions out. Again, this putatively generous and worker-friendly company has stunned everyone—both in the U.S. and Sweden—by doing an imitation of Wal-Mart.
Without a union to protect the employees, Ikea has done all those things non-union shops typically do. They lowered the starting hourly wage from $9.75 per hour to $8.00 per hour (the federal minimum is $7.25) , and began forcing people to work inordinate amounts of overtime. In fact, there is so much mandatory overtime being assigned—much of it on short notice—that people are actually quitting. Eight dollars an hour and never knowing when you’re going home doesn’t offer much incentive to stay.
In Sweden, Ikea employees are not only well-paid and well-benefited, but overtime is worked on a strictly voluntary basis. No Ikea employee in Sweden has to work over unless they want to. But in Danville, Virginia, it’s a different story. The plant’s 335 employees can only go home when they’re permitted to. As for vacation, Ikea employees in Sweden get 5-weeks paid leave per year; in Danville, workers get 12 days—eight of them assigned by the company.
Moreover, several EEOC (Equal Employment Opportunity Commission) racial discrimination lawsuits have already been filed by African American workers, charging that they were arbitrarily placed on less desirable jobs and assigned to less desirable shifts. And why wouldn’t they be? Who’s going to prevent that?
The Danville episode clearly illustrates two truths: First, without a built-in safety net (either in the form of a union or rigid labor laws—the kind the U.S. lacks) workers are going to be at the mercy of their employer. And second, Ikea’s reputation as a noble, enlightened and magnanimous employer is pure bullshit. How do you say “exploitation” in Swedish?
DAVID MACARAY, a Los Angeles playwright, is the author of “It’s Never Been Easy: Essays on Modern Labor”. He served 9 terms as president of AWPPW Local 672. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org