Selling Virginians for Cheap

D

anville in Southside Virginia has been especially hard hit by changing global markets. Once a major textile, tobacco and furniture town, the city has seen its economy decimated as those sectors have taken hits. Moving cut and sew plants to cheaper labor overseas helped shutter such local textile names as Dan River Mills and Tultex, hiking the local unemployment rate.

So, it was with great joy that then-Gov. Tim Kaine announced in 2006 that Swedwood, a unit of Swedish furniture giant IKEA would build a $281 million facility with 930,000 square feet to build stylish and affordable furniture for IKEA stores in the U.S., including the D.C. area. State and local officials kicked in $12 million in incentives for the factory that would eventually employ 330 workers. The trade press trumpeted Swedwood’s plans for a “cost-effective, lean production flow.”

And that’s when Virginia’s notoriety for treating its workers shabbily kicked in.

Although IKEA has a good reputation for employee relations and allows unions in Sweden, not so in little Danville. Workers at the plant complain that promised raises don’t materialize and that they often learn on Friday evening that they must work a weekend overtime shift or face penalties, according to a report in The Los Angeles Times. One worker, Kylette Duncan, told the Times she had to cancel medical appointments for her sick husband because of Swedwood’s chaotic work schedules.

The International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers says it has enough interest at Swedwood to try to organize the factory but the firm won’t let them on the grounds. After all, this is Virginia where the “right to work” anti-union concept is a cherished idea. The firm hired labor-busting law firm Jackson Lewis of Richmond to help blunt organizing efforts.

According to the Times, the story has been all over the media in Sweden but has gotten little attention in the U.S. Small wonder since the unions have faced a bashing, especially from budget-cutting Republicans in states such as Wisconsin.

On oddity is that the official who pushed landing Swedwood is no Republican at all, but former Gov. Tim Kaine who has been head of the national Democratic Party and is running for the U.S. Senate.

But then, when it comes to selling Virginia’s cheap labor, it really doesn’t matter which party one belongs to.

Peter Galuszka

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