IKEA workers stood tall while labour movement stood still

Dave Bush and Doug Nesbitt

IKEA Richmond picket lines, June 19, 2014
IKEA Richmond picket lines, June 19, 2014

Last week news broke that the 17-month lock out of IKEA workers in Richmond, British Columbia had ended. On one hand this was a welcome bit of news. After reaching an impasse several times, mediation helped the union and IKEA to hammer out a deal. On the other hand the deal that workers were able to get was a status quo deal. And the nearly 40 workers who scabbed and crossed picket lines are still on the job.

The workers at IKEA in Richmond are unionized with Teamsters local 213 and are one of only two unionized IKEA stores in the country. The 350 workers were locked out in May of 2013 and about three dozen crossed the picket line. The major issue during the lockout was IKEA’s desire to impose a two-tier wage structure – the very system that the workers had helped rollback in a 2006 strike. Another crucial issue was IKEA’s desire to cut off more workers from full benefits by raising the minimum hours for full benefits from 20 per week to 24 per week.

Throughout the lockout’s 527 days, the workers who didn’t scab stood tall on the line. They held pickets and protests and did their best to keep up the pressure against the large multinational

After the 2006 strike and leading up to the lockout, IKEA management at Richmond created a far worse workplace culture. As one of the IKEA Richmond shop stewards explained to RankandFile.ca in an interview, “Little things started happening. They suddenly had real issues with their payroll, like accidentally paying people out their vacation. Really stupid things that really messes with people’s minds because it’s upsetting. Then they’d take the money back by taking so much off each paycheque. Just stupid things like that, like no paying their sick days, screwing upon how many vacation days they had.”

Facing off against a hostile employer, the workers who didn’t scab stood tall on the line for 527 days. They held pickets and protests and did their best to keep up the pressure against the large multinational. The mediation process finally saw the workers get a deal which pushed back the two-tier wage demands of the company. However, the deal was for ten years and it did not address the issue of the scabs or management’s habit of messing with workers. The workers also had this deal imposed on them. They did not get a chance to vote on it.

Solidarity, where ya at?

Solidarity picket at IKEA Ottawa, July 12. The actions have been endorsed by Take Back the CLC
Solidarity picket at IKEA Ottawa, July 12

While the workers at IKEA stood firm against the corporate bully, the rest of the labour movement stood still. There was little in the way of large scale solidarity offered to these workers. Sure, there were numerous local actions and acts of solidarity from other workers, but nothing on the order that should have or could have been done. The CLC virtually ignored these workers. Even after Georgetti was defeated as president of the CLC, and Hassan Yussuff elected on the promise of mobilizing the labour movement and waging a “ground war”, the CLC did nothing.

With only 12 stores in the country, all located in major urban centres, a sustained and successful pressure campaign and even boycott was a real possibility

The Take Back the CLC campaign that mobilized to elect Hassan Husseini as President of the CLC tried to put this issue on the map of the wider labour movement. This summer they helped mobilize a series of coordinated solidarity pickets at multiple IKEA’s in Ontario. The idea was to help create the conditions for further successful actions by the broader labour movement, and pressuring the Teamsters and CLC into launching a coordinated boycott with solidarity pickets. With only 12 stores in the country, all located in major urban centres, a successful pressure campaign and boycott was a real possibility.

But this was not to be the case. Labour solidarity became the victim of labour politics at the highest level. The CLC was not going to call a boycott without the Teamsters approaching CLC with the request. Teamsters Local 213 officials didn’t call for a boycott. Nothing happened this past summer when 140 IKEA Richmond pickets signed a petition calling for a boycott.

Info picket at IKEA Etobicoke, June 21
Info picket at IKEA Etobicoke, June 21

Only one labour council officially endorsed the solidarity pickets this summer against IKEA, the Hamilton District Labour Council. The solidarity pickets, without a formal boycott called by the Teamsters or the CLC, meant many labour councils, especially those where the Teamsters were unaffiliated, were hesitant to both endorse and organize these actions.

By all accounts, even the locked out IKEA Richmond workers were at odds with their own local leadership over a variety of issues. The workers on the line at IKEA Richmond were far too alone.

The workers at IKEA deserved so much better from us as a movement. We should say never again can workers be locked out for so long without a broadening the fight beyond just the picket lines

This isn’t to say only the backroom dealings of labour leaders was responsible for the lack of solidarity, or that there weren’t labour leaders and union staff doing their jobs. Rather, all parts of the labour movement failed in our collective task to stand with the IKEA Richmond workers and bring public pressure to bear against this very high profile corporation.

Across the country, the sections of the labour movement normally willing to take action were slow to pick-up on this struggle. When actions were called by Take Back the CLC they were not made a priority. The petition by IKEA Richmond workers didn’t seem to get much traction either – even though it was an inspiring appeal for solidarity directly from the picket lines. The workers at IKEA deserved so much better from us as a movement. We should say never again can workers be locked out for so long without broadening the fight beyond just the picket lines.

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One thought on “IKEA workers stood tall while labour movement stood still

  1. We had union workers cross the line during our strike as well.

    Not only did they get paid, no union dues were collected from their cheques, and they reaped the benefits that others fought for.

    To the disgust of those who stayed on the line, absolutely NO sanctions were allowed to be taken against them. None, at all. They are even still allowed to run for the executive board.

    Personally, I would not have accepted that agreement. Unions have to get tougher and union members need to stick together. Either we do, or we may as well ALL go work for minimum wage part-time jobs. It’s a fact that private industry will pay you as little as they can get away with.

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