IKEA Workers in Massachusetts Walk Out on One Day Strike Amidst Drive to Unionize

Chris Brooks

On-strike IKEA workers of the "Goods and Flow In" department at a Stoughton, Massachusetts IKEA store. The workers are fighting to create a "micro-bargaining unit" affiliated with the Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW). Units such as these are the result of Specialty Healthcare, a 2011 National Labor Relations Board decision, which allows unions to organize minority units.

Yes­ter­day morn­ing in Stoughton, Mass­a­chu­setts, 14 IKEA work­ers walked out on a one-day strike — the first ever in the fur­ni­ture giant’s U.S. stores.

I’m fight­ing for my rights,” said strik­er Veron­i­ca Cabral, a 36-year-old sin­gle moth­er and immi­grant from Cape Verde. I want bet­ter for me, my fam­i­ly, and my co-workers.”

The union would con­sist of the 32 peo­ple who work in the Goods Flow In” depart­ment, where work­ers receive ship­ments and stock the store. Last week they deliv­ered a peti­tion demand­ing union recog­ni­tion, signed by 75 per­cent of the department.

They would form a so-called micro-bar­gain­ing unit,” affil­i­at­ed with the Food and Com­mer­cial Work­ers (UFCW) — fol­low­ing in the foot­steps of retail work­ers at Tar­get and Macy’s who have formed small bar­gain­ing units since a 2011 Nation­al Labor Rela­tions Board deci­sion, Spe­cial­ty Health­care, opened the door.

It’s been a long fight. Three years ago we start­ed with the Team­sters and we had 70 per­cent since then,” said Chris DeAn­ge­lo, 45, who’s worked at the store for eight years. What changed is that we can have a micro-unit now.”

Ulti­mate­ly, DeAn­ge­lo said, our plan is to union­ize the whole store. But it is dif­fi­cult with the dif­fer­ent shifts and dif­fer­ent parts of the store. We are work­ing up to get­ting every­one else.”

Fears and reprisals

The same day the work­ers deliv­ered their peti­tion, Demo­c­ra­t­ic pres­i­den­tial can­di­dates Mar­tin O’Malley and Bernie Sanders sent let­ters to IKEA U.S. Pres­i­dent Lars Peter­son, urg­ing the com­pa­ny to rec­og­nize the union.

Sanders cas­ti­gat­ed the com­pa­ny for bla­tant intim­i­da­tion cou­pled with sub­tle yet effec­tive psy­cho­log­i­cal war­fare against work­ers who wish to unionize.”

We had a code of con­duct’ train­ing that seemed rou­tine until we were asked to go around the room and talk about our union sym­pa­thies,” said machine oper­a­tor Shawn Mor­ri­son, 28. That was rou­tine, just a part of the train­ing, until some­one called it out. Anoth­er time the store man­ag­er called us up to the H.R. office. He dropped union lit­er­a­ture on the table and asked us how we felt about it.”

IKEA has team lead­ers on the floor try­ing to scare every­one about what will hap­pen if there is a union,” Cabral said. They tell us we will be fired.” She’s been urg­ing her co-work­ers not to get scared off.

But man­agers have begun tar­get­ing pro-union employ­ees for arbi­trary dis­ci­pline — which made the peti­tion and strike urgent, work­ers said.

We couldn’t wait any longer. We had to make some sort of deci­sion,” DeAn­ge­lo said. We know that we all have tar­gets paint­ed on us, espe­cial­ly those of us who have been there longer and are mak­ing more than the new recruits.

This store has been open 10 years and I have been there eight, and there has been no improve­ment. There is all this ten­sion, all this insta­bil­i­ty, all this inse­cu­ri­ty. You nev­er know when the oth­er shoe is about to drop.”

At the end of their shift Novem­ber 14, work­ers in the Goods Flow In depart­ment were called togeth­er to hear the store man­ag­er and head of H.R. give the company’s offi­cial response to their petition.

The let­ter from IKEA man­age­ment said that by rec­og­niz­ing the UFCW as the rep­re­sen­ta­tive, we would be tak­ing away the chance for each indi­vid­ual co-work­er to make a choice” and that a secret-bal­lot elec­tion super­vised by the Labor Board would be more con­sis­tent with the approach we have tak­en in our U.S. dis­tri­b­u­tion centers.”

Work­ers were livid. Their excuse for deny­ing the peti­tion is ridicu­lous and dis­re­spect­ful to the 75 per­cent of peo­ple who signed their names,” DeAn­ge­lo said. That is why we are going on strike. It is a slap in the face. It is absolute­ly disgusting.”

The Amer­i­can model

IKEA, a Swedish com­pa­ny head­quar­tered in the Nether­lands, touts its com­mit­ment to social respon­si­bil­i­ty and work­er rights. In Europe its retail work­ers are over­whelm­ing­ly unionized.

But like pro-union work­ers in Volkswagen’s Chat­tanooga, Ten­nessee, plant, the Stoughton IKEA work­ers are real­iz­ing that their employ­er is not so much a social­ly respon­si­ble Euro­pean com­pa­ny doing busi­ness in the U.S. as an Amer­i­can-style com­pa­ny that just hap­pens to be head­quar­tered in Europe.

The Amer­i­can Mod­el — that is what they are call­ing it,” said DeAn­ge­lo. He points to IKEA’s hir­ing of the noto­ri­ous anti-union law firm Jack­son Lewis to bust the orga­niz­ing cam­paign. A tru­ly social­ly respon­si­ble com­pa­ny wouldn’t do that.”

Mor­ri­son trav­eled to Milan, Italy, last month to attend the IKEA Glob­al Alliance meet­ing, which brings togeth­er unions rep­re­sent­ing the company’s retail and ware­house work­ers from all over the world.

One of the things that our Euro­pean co-work­ers felt was that the com­pa­ny was shift­ing more and more towards the Amer­i­can mod­el and that their labor unions would be in dan­ger,” he said.

In Europe they kind of believe that the Unit­ed States does not want unions,” Mor­ri­son said. Europe has gone such a long time think­ing that the U.S. is just a bar­ren waste­land of union activ­i­ty, but we are show­ing them that that is not true.”

Chris Brooks is a staff writer and labor edu­ca­tor at Labor Notes, where he cov­ers the Unit­ed Auto Work­ers. He is a mem­ber of the Nation­al Writ­ers Union (UAW Local 1981).
Limited Time:

SUBSCRIBE TO IN THESE TIMES MAGAZINE FOR JUST $1 A MONTH