Third World America

Nathaniel Popper has written a tour de force piece for the Los Angeles Times about the US labor practices of Ikea, the iconic Swedish brand now owned by INGKA Holding B.V., a Dutch conglomerate, at their Danville, Virginia manufacturing facility. The long and the short of it is that Ikea is abusing the rights of its American workers because it can whereas in its European manufacturing sites, the company is held to much tighter pro-worker standards set by progressive governments.

The dust-up has garnered little attention in the U.S. But it's front-page news in Sweden, where much of the labor force is unionized and Ikea is a cherished institution. Per-Olaf Sjoo, the head of the Swedish union in Swedwood factories, said he was baffled by the friction in Danville. Ikea's code of conduct, known as IWAY, guarantees workers the right to organize and stipulates that all overtime be voluntary.

"Ikea is a very strong brand and they lean on some kind of good Swedishness in their business profile. That becomes a complication when they act like they do in the United States," said Sjoo. "For us, it's a huge problem."

Laborers in Swedwood plants in Sweden produce bookcases and tables similar to those manufactured in Danville. The big difference is that the Europeans enjoy a minimum wage of about $19 an hour and a government-mandated five weeks of paid vacation. Full-time employees in Danville start at $8 an hour with 12 vacation days -- eight of them on dates determined by the company.

What's more, as many as one-third of the workers at the Danville plant have been drawn from local temporary-staffing agencies. These workers receive even lower wages and no benefits, employees said.

Swedwood's Steen said the company is reducing the number of temps, but she acknowledged the pay gap between factories in Europe and the U.S. "That is related to the standard of living and general conditions in the different countries," Steen said.

Bill Street, who has tried to organize the Danville workers for the machinists union, said Ikea was taking advantage of the weaker protections afforded to U.S. workers.

"It's ironic that Ikea looks on the U.S. and Danville the way that most people in the U.S. look at Mexico," Street said.

The line that should gnaw at you is "Ikea was taking advantage of the weaker protections afforded U.S. workers." American manufacturing has been in decline for some time now as an assault on unions and as free trade deals allow corporations to globalize their production. These two forces have combined to shed high paying American manufacturing jobs which more than any other factor has led to the decline of the middle class. 

Still despite this war on American manufacturing, it was only last year that we reached a tipping point. After 110 years of the leading global manufacturing output, the United States was at last surpassed by China. China accounted for 19.8 percent of global production in 2010, slightly higher than the 19.4 percent of the United States. But it is not just quantitatively that we have lost our lead. What we have seen in the United States is a general degradation of labor standards and worker rights since Ronald Reagan broke the air traffic controllers strike and their union, PATCO, in 1981.

In September of 2010, the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC) issued a scathing report on workers’ rights and labor conditions in the United States. The report was almost completely ignored by the American media but among its findings were the following:

* The National Labor Relations Act, which gives workers the right to organize and bargain collectively, is full of holes. One big hole is that large groups of workers are exempt. Besides excluding 40 percent of all public sector workers, “the statute excludes many categories of private sector employees from its scope, including agricultural and domestic workers, supervisors, and independent contractors,” ITUC said.

* The Supreme Court in 2006 also yanked away protections from undocumented workers, forcing the AFL-CIO to complain to the international groups. They upheld its complaint, but all the groups could do was to urge Congress to change Federal law.

* ITUC also noted the National Labor Relations Board, which administers the act, expanded the scope of “supervisors” in 2006 to cover an estimated 8 million more workers, all with minimal supervisory duties.

* An analysis by the University of California-Davis on NLRB union recognition elections shows the odds of making it all the way through the agency’s union process, from filing a petition to getting a first contract, are less than one in four.

* Union-busting, the ITUC says, has become a $4 billion industry. Some 82 percent of employers hire such companies that employ a wide range of anti-union tactics. Employers often force employees to listen to anti-union propaganda and threaten workers with company closures if they vote to form a trade union.

* Child labour is in many cases not effectively addressed in the US, particularly in agriculture and not least because of the hazardous conditions that children are exposed to. Many of the children are migrant farm workers, often Latino. The AFL-CIO estimates that between 300,000 and 800,000 children are employed in agriculture under dangerous conditions. Moreover, the number of child labour inspections has been falling.

* Employers routinely violate labor law and penalties are few, low or treated as a cost of doing business. “Employers have a statutory right under the NLRA to express their views during a union campaign so long as they do not interfere with employees’ free choice. In practice, however, employers have a legal right to engage in a wide range of anti-union tactics that chill the exercise of freedom of association and do, in fact, interfere,” the report noted.

None of the above really permeates the national conservation. We have reached a point where a United States Senator, Mike Lee of Utah, thinks that Congressional child labour laws are unconstitutional. With thinking like that is it any wonder that we are a nation in decline?

And the saddest part of all is that those workers at the Ikea plant in Danville, Virginia if they vote at all are more likely to vote GOP than Democratic. Then again, it's not like the Democrats have done them many favours either, because who lured Ikea's Swedwood subsidiary to Danville, Virginia? Yes, that's right, Tim Kaine, a Democrat who until this week was head of the Democratic National Committee. And to lure Swedwood to Virginia in 2006, then Governor Kaine offered the company $6.4 million in state money. 

Tags: US Manufacturing, US Labor Practices, Unions in America (all tags)

Comments

2 Comments

Obama And The DLC Are Eunichs

What did you expect? Are you waiting for the Magic Unicorn Of Brass Balls? America is a bad joke and working Americans are the punch line.

by nanobot 2011-04-12 02:19AM | 0 recs
The stark differences between a social democracy and a capitalistic democracy, if I can define the USA in that manner, are plain to see.

But the sad thing here is that so many US workers are conditioned to reject unions, and as you say, vote GOP, that they do not recognize the fall they are taking into, as you also say, a Third World existence. Blame Clinton, or the DLC, or the Obama administration, but average Americans are not getting the message. No one is telling them the truth about what they are in for. This state of affairs today seems to be that the Democratic party has just accepted this reality. And soon the word "poor" will return as a way of speaking about the middle class. 

by MainStreet 2011-04-12 09:51AM | 0 recs

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