Canada

Dear Ikea: What’s Swedish for “shame”?

picketing ikea

Leafleting outside IKEA

- By Christina Montgomery

(This is kind of a long post. If you need a tune to keep you company while you read, click här.) 

It snowed again today where I live. It touched off much excitement and delight on my street. Holiday smiles, cheering for the fact that here in the land of perpetual rain, we’re finally signing up for Canadian winter.

Me, my first thought was: “Jeez, brrrr. That Ikea picket line just got a little rougher to walk.”

Just a few miles south of here, 350 workers at the Ikea store in Richmond have been locked out of work for nearly seven months. They have refused to accept a new contract that would pay them less, cut hours and tie their wages to company-determined productivity targets.

Right now, the company says some employees make $18 an hour and some as much as $21 an hour. It has not said how many, if any, work a full 40-hour week. That’s probably because there aren’t many. You can do your own assessment of how far $18 an hour goes if you work a six or 10-hour week. Or how life works if you never really know how many hours you’ll be assigned. Or what it  does to morale when you find out the guy working next to you is making a different wage for the same work.

The company initially wanted workers to accept a two-tier wage system offering different money for long-term and newer employees. The offer was later revised to a complex system of percentage pay hikes based on sales targets. The workers took a look at the target system and said no. They calculated that it would take them at least a decade to hit the high end of the scale — and that their futures would be tied to profit figures they couldn’t verify.

This hasn’t happened in Canada before, as near as I can determine. I can’t find anywhere that wage hikes have been based on future sales goals. (If  I’m missing something, please let me know.) I think it’s  interesting that a union Ikea store in Montreal managed to strike a deal this year without any of the productivity links or cutbacks that have seen folks locked out in B.C.

The store has also done something quite unnecessary to its staff: It refused to let them come back to work, under their present contract, until they strike a new deal. That’s a really aggressive thing to do to people. It’s not uncommon in Canada, or BC, or in Vancouver, to keep workers in place while you bargain. My old newsroom worked for years — years — under an expired contract while we bargained with a financially-stressed company that was not doing the $36 billion in business that Ikea did worldwide last year.

Aside from the damage being done to the Ikea workers and their families, here’s the thing that occurs to me: The lockout is a perfect example of how much our social arrangements are beginning to fray. It says a lot about the expectations we have of the companies that we allow to operate in our communities, of what we consider a fair trade-off for the profits they make, of how we value each other, our ability to put food on the table and look after our families — and of our vision these days of how a civil, acceptable, healthy community should look.

What’s going on at Ikea is wrong. The company — known elsewhere for its responsible community approach and its decent treatment of workers — is treating people badly here. It is behaving badly as an employer.

I don’t think it’s tough for us to help the folks working there to find a solution, or to require Ikea to behave well. It’s not tough. You just say no. You don’t support Ikea. It’s that simple: You say no. You say “shame”. You let them know you require them to act better. And you tell friends and family to do the same.

This isn’t a story about unions, or pushy labour, or the “right to work”. It isn’t about retail wages “above industry standard” — a standard that doesn’t support a family in Vancouver in any case. It’s about your neighbours and friends and family, who show up every day to work at retail jobs at a store that sells things we have come to appreciate — only to be told they are now worth less money and will have a more unreliable and uncertain schedule than they had six months ago.

These folks aren’t making a lot of money. They are students putting themselves through school, parents supplementing family incomes. People paying their bills. They’re not Big Labour. They’re just people asking that they continue to work at the wages they signed on for, and with some reliable, predictable certainty of a decent shift.

They aren’t responsible for a management decision to replace the original store in Richmond with the huge new one that opened in 2012, at an apparent cost to the company of $100 million — or for the fact that the new store significantly increased sales expectations in Richmond. Or for a management decision to open a store in nearby Coquitlam, which has split shoppers’ dollars.

So they’ve said no. And they’ve got international support. Labour federations recently held an inquiry into the lockout; a report on the findings is due for release Thursday. The folks who work at Ikea Richmond described their situation in simple, personal terms at the inquiry. You can find a full video record of the very moving testimony that was presented  here (testimony at the inquiry held in Vancouver) and here (testimony from the picket line) and find more on the dispute here.

You can also read a bit about the inquiry in a Tyee story here; it talks about what global support might look like if no progress is made in bargaining.

What The Tyee article didn’t say was that this is the company’s second shot at trying to take back wages, at trying to set up two classes of workers. In 2007, workers in Richmond staged a three-week strike to have a two-tier wage deal the company brought in withdrawn. They won. And now they’ve been locked out because they’re saying no again. They don’t believe wages should be cut, or that two classes of workers should be established. Or that it should take 10 years to climb a wage grid.

Here’s another thing The Tyee article doesn’t say: In Sweden, with an advanced economy and cost of living roughly comparable to ours, the company doesn’t do this.

In Sweden — in a country and in communities where people insist on decent living standards, on the right to bargain and on profits that are shared via decent wages and enough hours to make them meaningful — here’s how life at Ikea looks:

Seventy per cent of staff work a 40-hour week.

Thirty per cent work 30 hours a week.

A small number work weekend jobs.

Everyone — every worker — gets benefits and a pension.

The entry wage is $17.75 Cdn an hour. It only takes three years — three — to climb the grid to a wage of $20 an hour.

The stores have more staff.

And everyone from production through sales floor and management — yes, and management — works under a union agreement.

So there’s an interesting lesson here. People in our communities — your friends, neighbours, family — are locked out on a sidewalk today, in the snow, weeks before Christmas, in part because we’ve decided it’s ok with us that this is happening to them. It’s ok with us that a gigantic Swedish company is allowing its local managers to treat our friends and family far differently than it treats its own  people.

I don’t think it really is. I think Canadians are still for the most part a civil, generous people who understand the value of strong communities and decent wages, and the critical role they play in supporting the country we have built. And I think if asked, we are willing to require more than this kind of behaviour on the part of an employer who we have allowed to do business in our community.

We need to decline to support a company that behaves this way. It’s the final push to Christmas shopping season. We will hear much from the company in the way of fightback, I expect. We will hear anger about the ads that Ikea workers have begun airing on radio, and on the information campaign they have been running. We will hear arguments in news stories. And on radio and television.

We need to listen carefully to the company response — and unless the message is that they are bringing their workers back under fair conditions, we need to raise our voices and say shame, Ikea. Shame.

Skäms, Ikea. Skäms.

- Christine Montgomery is a Canadian journalist. She blogs at Pay Day, where this post originally appeared. It is reproduced with permission.

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