A cause worth fighting for: Remembering the IKEA lockout

By Dot Tompkins
former union shop steward at Ikea Richmond

The other day, a person I call a friend posted a link to a Google Maps street view that brought so many memories flooding back. The location was my former place of employment and the area where we spent 18 months walking back and forth wearing a picket sign. The Google images had been taken during our labour dispute and showed our ‘nest’ as well as some of our people on the line.

“What is amazing … is the solidarity that was experienced both within our group and from people we had never known before.” – Dot Tompkins (left)

After spending 18 months strolling that square footage, I have such vivid memories of the area. I remember spending time counting the number of barricade sections after the company put them up to ‘keep us out’, and calculating the cost of that action in comparison with the cost of what we were fighting for.

I remember the faces of many of the guards – most of whom made so little money for the hours they spent standing out there day after day, strategically positioned around the metallic barricades in the rain, the snow, and the blazing heat.

We were told the guards were there to basically protect us from ourselves; retail workers are such a violent bunch (insert sarcastic laugh here).

In the 18 months, I don’t remember a single violent act. Well, there was the greasing of the fences, the removal of our signs, the constant filming of our every move, the snide comments, and continual barrage of loud speaker announcements praising the efforts of the workers who had crossed the picket line to ‘exercise their rights to work’. Oh wait – that wasn’t us.

At times I wondered if there was a playbook on how to demoralize people that I hadn’t read. But, the memories that stick out the most and that I will always treasure are of the humanity I saw during that long 18 months.

I have to say that in the 18 months that followed I drank more Tim Hortons and Starbucks than ever before and ate more doughnuts than I care to think about! Complete strangers would stop by to deliver water, coffee, doughnuts and at times just much-needed words of encouragement. There was the man who was retired but who would stop by, sometimes on his own and sometimes with his mother, and put on a sign to just spend time walking and talking with us.

picketThere was the day that the Vancouver District Labour Council pulled up just inside the fence with a busload of people who had come to walk with us and show support – what an experience that was. That was the best part of my days; the walking and talking with people that I had just met and with people whom I had known for years but never really ‘knew’. For me, it reinforced my belief in what we were doing.

There were the big groups like the ILWU, VDLC, BC Fed, ITF, BCNU and so many more. There were the smaller groups, union and otherwise, who brought us things like Subway gift cards, Safeway gift cards and those oh-so-fabulous doughnuts. Our friend John Wilson along with Rankandfile.ca and Take Back the CLC held rallies at other retail locations in support. Our own union made sure we all had jackets to keep out the wind and the cold.

At Christmas, the support brought tears to our eyes. Unexpected were the actions of two ILWU members that we barely knew but now think of as good friends, Trudie and Gord, who spent hours of their own time fundraising so that we could have a better holiday. Monies were also sent across the seas to us from UNIGLOBAL while the BCNU made sure that every picketer’s child had a Christmas present. We held 50/50 draws and, with the help of some of our friends, were able to organize our own low-budget Christmas party and what a party it was!

On top of all the generosity from strangers, there was a lot from our own people as well; those who gave up their gift cards and money because they felt that others were more in need, or brought in donations of bread, fruits and vegetables. Some even brought food they made to share with the rest of us. We held barbecues for just $2 a plate.

Many of us even stepped way outside our comfort zones to rally and speak in support of the cause. We believed the cause was not just about the handful of us, but went so much deeper. This was about the Labour Movement as a whole, not just ‘us’. This wasn’t about making more money or bleeding ‘The Man’ dry. In a nutshell, it was about keeping what we already had.

This week marks the two-year anniversary of the day we were locked out. No, it’s not a happy event like the birth of a child or the beginning of a relationship; nothing like that. May 13th marks the day that nearly 300 of us workers replaced our blue and yellow uniforms with picket signs. It is the day that our employer/former employer locked us out in what was to become an 18-month long labour dispute.

For me, it seems like years ago and also like it happened yesterday. It ended only 7 months ago – it should have ended December of 2013 – but it feels like so much longer. Who knew, on that day in 2013, that everything would change for us to such an extent.

lockoutendsWe learned things that were eye-opening, heart -warming, inspiring and, at times, extremely disillusioning. We met new friends from outside our bubble and connected with people we had known for years. We had our share of births, deaths, illnesses and a wedding or two.

I could be bitter and angry and resentful for the lost time spent focusing on what I (and in some cases ‘we’) believed was a cause worth fighting for and people worth standing up with. But those feelings, valid as they may be, serve little purpose. What is amazing, however, is the solidarity that was experienced both within our group and from people we had never known before. Those are the memories that I will always treasure.

For more on the 18-month Ikea lockout, check out these Rankandfile.ca articles:

Boycott Ikea: Some Assembly Required
527 Days: Reflections by IKEA Richmond workers

To see all our IKEA lockout coverage, click here


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