Globalizing Labor’s Struggle

Those of you with so much as a casual interest in labor issues have no doubt heard about the recent unionization of IKEA factory workers in Danville, VA. It was a big victory for organized labor, especially considering the unfavorable conditions in which it occurred — Virginia is a right-to-work state, and you might have noticed that things are not going super great for unions as a whole in the United States.

Fortunately IKEA has considerable interests in its motherland of Sweden, a labor stronghold. Josh Eidelson writes:

While workers were organizing for a union in Danville, the Building and Wood Workers’ International (BWI) labor federation, of which IAM is an affiliate, was working to pin responsibility for Virginia anti-union tactics on Ikea headquarters in Europe. Ikea workers and supporters engaged in global solidarity actions, including thousands of phone calls and emails and an informational picket line in Australia. The workers’ struggle in Virginia for the benefits that are assumed in Sweden drew repeated Swedish media coverage, including a segment on the country’s top-rated news show.

Street says that pressure paid off in the months before the union vote, as Ikea corporate concluded that protecting their brand in Europe required getting Jackson Lewis to scale back its anti-union tactics in Virginia.

[...]

The Swedish example also strengthened workers’ sense of what was possible in Virginia. In the month before the election, a leader of Sweden’s Ikea manufacturing union flew to Danville and met with workers to describe the wages, benefits and respect they had won. BWI also organized to send the 335 Danville workers messages of support from workers around the world, including hand-written letters and videos.

If American labor is ever going to get back on its feet, it needs more of this. Multinational corporations may be extraordinarily powerful, but they’re also vulnerable to pressure on their international holdings. Americans trying to organize in the shadow of a global behemoth, take note: odds are that company is also trying to preserve its bottom line in some much more heavily unionized country.

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