For the past 18 months, employees at several IKEA stores in the United States, including those in Stoughton, Massachusetts, have been attempting to form a union with the United Food and Commercial Workers, the largest retail union in North America. In response to this campaign, IKEA management has taken a number of actions that violate the company's official policy of neutrality on unionization.
This week the situation escalated significantly. IKEA "goods flow in" workers at the Stoughton store (just outside of Boston) went on strike after store management turned down their request for union recognition, even though a clear majority of the bargaining unit had indicated support for the union. This is the first US strike in the history of IKEA, and if the workers succeed in getting union recognition, it will be the first IKEA union in the country.
When it comes to respect for the right to form a union and engage in collective bargaining, there's no doubt that IKEA talks a good talk. In 2004, IKEA signed up to the United Nations Global Compact, an international effort to encourage socially responsible corporate practices. Moreover, IKEA's internal company code of conduct ("Good Business with Common Sense") states: "The IKEA Group supports every co-worker's right to freedom of association.... We respect the rights of co-workers to join, form or not to join a co-worker association
of their choice."
But how does IKEA's paper commitment to the right to form a union compare with how it actually treats workers in the United States? The first thing that IKEA did when faced with organizing activity at several of its US stores (IKEA workers in College Park, Maryland; Seattle, Washington; and elsewhere are also attempting to form unions) is engage the services of Jackson Lewis, perhaps the most notorious law firm in the country that specializes in so-called "union avoidance."
There's absolutely no doubt why IKEA engaged this particular law firm. Consider the official biographies of the two Jackson Lewis attorneys hired by IKEA: One of them runs seminars that "provide the strategies and tools companies need to determine how to respond effectively and aggressively to labor organizing." The other "advises employers on how to remain union-free when confronted with union organizing."
Hiring these lawyers makes a mockery of IKEA's claims of neutrality on unionization. The decision is analogous to hiring the nation's preeminent climate change deniers to meet its sustainability targets.
IKEA management has attempted to create a climate of fear within US stores through its anti-union behavior.
Since hiring Jackson Lewis, IKEA management has taken a number of anti-union actions. At Stoughton and elsewhere, store management has distributed official letters telling workers that the union is a sinister "third party" that is invading their privacy, intimidating workers and tarnishing the good reputation of the company. In reality, it is management that has the power to fire workers, refuse them promotions, deny them full-time work (an issue of enormous importance within the stores) or alter their schedules, making it possible for them to balance work, family and school commitments. The union has no similar power over the employees, and IKEA's "at will" employees risk a lot by openly supporting the union.
Moreover, IKEA management has used its non-solicitation and social media policies to prevent employees from discussing unionization or hearing from pro-union workers both inside the stores and in public areas outside the stores. The company recently settled
a charge with the National Labor Relations Board accusing it of violating federal law for using social media policies to clamp down on discussion.
IKEA management has attempted to create a climate of fear within the stores through its anti-union behavior. Workers say that its activities have had a "chilling effect" on union activities within the stores.
IKEA is not the only European multinational that has signed up to leading labor rights standards but failed to uphold them in its US operations. Nor is it the only corporation that respects the rights of its European workers but systematically violates labor rights in the United States. But that does not make its behavior any more excusable.
Instead of lowering the bar even further when it comes to respect for labor rights in the United States, IKEA, based in Sweden, a country in which workers enjoy among the strongest labor protections anywhere in the world, should be setting the standard.
By striking for union recognition, Stoughton workers are letting IKEA management know that they are no longer afraid. They are demanding that the company respect their right to form a union, not just on paper, but also in reality. IKEA should do the right thing and respect the rights of its workers in the United States, as well as those in Sweden.