Opinion Column

Courageous Richmond Ikea workers face long odds

By Bill Tieleman, News, Views, and Attitude – 24 hours

Richmond workers are taking on Sweden's Ingvar Kamprad, founder of furniture retail chain Ikea and one of the richest men in the world. (REUTERS)

Richmond workers are taking on Sweden's Ingvar Kamprad, founder of furniture retail chain Ikea and one of the richest men in the world. (REUTERS)

Ikea's hardball tactics in B.C. may reflect a creeping Americanization of labour-management relations in Canada. — Prof. John Logan, San Francisco State University

When one of the world’s richest men takes on 350 unionized workers in Richmond to demand they accept concessions — you know it is a fight worthy of David versus Goliath.

But Ikea workers who have been on the picket line for a year — the union says it’s a lockout, the company says it’s a strike — won’t give in to billionaire owner Ingvar Kamprad.

The dispute illustrates the increasingly difficult challenges faced by organized labour when a small group of local workers is pitted against a huge multinational corporation.

Ikea workers in the United States, Turkey, Russia, France and elsewhere have accused the Swedish-based company of bad labour relations.

Meanwhile, the furniture giant lumbers on, ignoring a dispute with more than 300 Teamsters members on the picket line and about 35 workers crossing it to work at the Richmond Ikea.

And talk about a Goliath — Kamprad is estimated by Bloomberg to be worth a staggering $41.8 billion US in 2012, just behind Microsoft mogul Bill Gates.

If Ikea has an Achilles heel, it’s the company’s professed corporate social responsibility values.

The Teamsters have enlisted Nordic union organizations to help publicize Ikea’s behaviour — which they allege includes demanding concessions and rewarding employees who cross their own union’s picket line.

But Ikea doesn’t seem worried.

“We are committed to going back to the bargaining table with or without a mediator in an effort to reach a fair resolution — but the union needs to demonstrate a willingness to bargain on all open items,” Ikea Canada’s Madeleine Lowenborg-Frick told 24 Hours by email. “It is the Teamsters’ refusal to bargain on the expelled employees that is prolonging the strike.”

Anita Dawson, Teamsters Local 213 business agent, disagrees.

“We’re not asking for those workers (who crossed the picket line) to be fired and never have. They could be transferred to another store or moved into management,” Dawson told 24 Hours on Monday, adding that Ikea’s Richmond store is only partly open.

Can a small group of workers beat a giant?

They have the courage of David facing Goliath, but so far seem to lack the critical slingshot needed for an upset victory.

And if they lose, other multinational employers in Canada will likely follow the same approach.

Bill Tieleman is a former NDP strategist. Read his blog at http://billtieleman.blogspot.ca Email: weststar@telus.net Twitter: @BillTieleman.


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