Sociologists tell us that the reason a happily married man seeks the services of a prostitute is because he believes she will do things his wife would never consent to. Sordid as that observation may be, this same perception appears to be Sweden’s reason for embracing the American worker. Judging from their recent actions, Swedish companies now believe they can get American workers to do things their own citizens would never consent to.
One of its early manifestations was the draconian measures instituted at Sweden’s IKEA manufacturing plant in Danville, Virginia. After getting the local community to give them more than $12 million in tax breaks and other subsidies (as an inducement to locate their factory in this job-starved region of Virginia), it didn’t take long for the IKEA facility to show its true colors.
The company not only went out and hired a union-busting outfit to keep the IAM (International Association of Machinists) from making a run at the employees, it proceeded to drastically slash employee wages, and unilaterally modify long-standing work and overtime rules. Needless to say, these measures not only would have been frowned upon in Sweden, they would’ve been illegal. They would have been in violation of Sweden’s federal labor laws.
As brutal as the Danville crackdown was, a similar Swedish move is occurring at the AAK (AahusKarishamn) oils and fats processing plant, in Louisville, Kentucky. The Louisville plant was formerly owned and operated by Golden Brands, but was sold to the Swedish multinational corporation last July. Despite having had a fairly cooperative relationship with Golden Brands for more than 25 years, once the company changed hands, things turned ugly almost immediately.
Among the stunts AAK pulled was to launch an unprecedented anti-union campaign last fall, one that culminated in—as outrageous as this is going to sound—the company circulating a decertification petition, urging the fifty members of Chapter 320 of the National Conference of Firemen and Oilers (NCFO/Local 32BJ SEIU) to voluntarily leave their union. The audacity of such a move was astounding. If management had dared circulate a decertification petition in Sweden, the company’s executives would’ve been strung up by their Buster Browns.
But when the decert effort failed, AAK upped the ante. The Swedish company not only threatened to fire members of the union bargaining committee if they didn’t recommend to their fellow workers ratification of a grossly inferior contract, but their negotiators came to the bargaining table with a series of ultimata that would have effectively stripped the union of its legitimacy (including abolishing the union security clause and eliminating seniority rights).
Say what you will about the Swedes, they’re shrewd and resourceful. Accordingly, they were perceptive enough to realize that the United States no longer qualifies, technically, as a “country”—at least not in the way that Sweden qualifies as a “country.”
The U.S. has lost its sense of national community. Instead of being a “country,” it has mutated into a vast gladiatorial arena, a place where corporations compete for profits in a zero-sum game, where everything is reduced to winners and losers, and where, unfortunately, the federal laws are so weak, they practically guarantee that the workers will always be the losers.
So what we have before us is a case of Sweden—formerly one of the most socially and economically enlightened countries in the entire world—looking for a prostitute who will do things that its own citizens won’t do. And that prostitute happens to be America. Whoever said it was right….we are, indeed, the Land of Opportunity.
DAVID MACARAY, an LA playwright and author (“It’s Never Been Easy: Essays on Modern Labor”), was a former union rep. He is a contributor to Hopeless: Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion, forthcoming from AK Press. He can be reached firstname.lastname@example.org