April 16th, 2011

It’s official: U.S. workers in the south are cheap, exploitable labor

Sweden, the heavily unionized and regulated society where the American Dream of social mobility is actually realized, is the home to the global home furnishing giant IKEA. The corporation chose the small rural Virginia town of Danville with its 45,000 people and 10% unemployment mostly because the state and local governments showered the corporation with $12 million dollars in tax exemptions.

A funny thing happened to the ostensibly good employer with a solid reputation of superior corporate responsibility when it crossed the Atlantic and opened the Virginia plant 3 years ago.  It left back home its code of conduct called IWAY that guarantees workers the right to organize and to allow overtime to be voluntary. It left its Swedish traditions of honoring workers and acted like locals who test the limits of what American workers will take and exploit them to the max. Swedish workers at IKEA also enjoy 5 paid weeks of vacation thanks to local laws.

At the Virginia plant, the starting hourly salary was $9.75 in a region where the average is closer to $15 (no great shakes, either). This year, IKEA decided to cut the salary to $8.00. Overtime is mandated. Disagree and you’re fired. Its 335 employees wanted to unionize and affiliate with the Int’l Assoc. of Machinists. But the corporation called in the union-busting attorneys at Jackson Lewis (who probably do not have a branch in Stockholm). Employees were ordered to attend management-run lectures on the evils of unions (how many of you knew employers have this right?).

The resultant mistreatment, a.k.a. bullying, has led to a slew of lawsuits. Nothing IKEA did is considered outrageous or illegal in the USA, especially the nearly union-free southern states. But the company’s conduct, so unbecoming for a Swedish firm, made news iIN SWEDEN! The press there believed it wrong for IKEA to act one way when the workers were Swedish and another way when the workers were third-world exploited labor, in America, as it turned out.

IKEA treats workers like commodities. Go where they are cheapest, as if they are resources like sugar, oil, cotton, or wheat. All of the corporations that use Chinese labor do the same. To do so is to treat the country that provides the workers as if it is 3rd world. To Sweden, America is that 3rd world provider of a cheap commodity.

The double irony for those of us in the workplace bullying movement is that Sweden is the home of the international movement. It is where Heinz Leymann conducted his research, treated the oppressed and traumatized workers, and the country that created the world’s first law against “Victimisation At Work” that went into effect in 1994. Sweden is the Seneca Falls of the movement. It breaks our hearts — for the exploited southern workers, for the southern cities who whore out their people willingly, for the globalized employer mindset that corrupts even the best of the best companies in the world to lower themselves in search of profits.

Read the initial report in the Los Angeles Times.


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This entry was posted on Saturday, April 16th, 2011 at 6:06 am and is filed under Employers Gone Wild: Doing Bad Things, Fairness & Social Justice Denied. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.

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  1. kachina says:

    Scares the heck out of me! I live in a city (Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada) that has gone to great lengths and expense to attract IKEA. They are coming soon to my community, which has proven much less worker friendly than I had assumed.

  2. Eileen says:

    Spread the word – boycott Ikea

  3. J. says:

    I’ve been a resident of the south all of my life and, as many people here seem quick to note (for good or bad, but mostly bad) – I was born here. This problem is not new. Before businesses outside the US began exploiting cheap southern labor, other American businesses were doing it. We also have quite a few car companies who like cheap southern labor.

    Exploitation is common in the south for a few reasons. The south is lower paying than most of the rest of the US and it has been for a very long time. We also have laws that are insanely friendly to big business, both foreign and US. We are an anti-labor region with virtually no collective bargaining. We do not have good labor laws – it is tempting to say we have almost no laws protecting labor. Look at the legislators elected from southern congressional districts. Exploitation is cultural here, sadly. I am not offering a defense – I think it is and always has been repugnant.

    This afternoon I read this article for the second time and just caught the Seneca Falls reference. Brilliant comparison! And, it fits at more than one level.

  4. kachina says:

    Senator bernie Sanders of Vermont seems to have a solid understanding of the underlying forces at work these days…

    • Jay Jacobus says:

      The politicians react to (and may even create)crises but they never get around to the economy.

      Before the banking crises and the collapse of the economy, wages were going up and demand for qualified employees exceeded supply.

      What could a corporation that needed employees do?

      The economy turned sour and wages dropped helping corporations to make ever larger profit.

      How lucky can they get?

  5. bob hertz says:

    Sadly, the only cure for greed is fear.

    When companies who mistreat workers become physically afraid of retaliation, then and only then will they change their ways.

    The force of law is probably better than the threat of naked violence. But violence stands unspoken behind the law.

    If the directors of IKEA in Sweden, plus its minons in the USA, were to become physically and/or legally afraid, then they might treat workers with respect.

    I only say this after reading labor history for many years.

    Bob Hertz
    Director, The Health Care Crusade

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