Danville 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 get 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, 930,000 facility to make stylish and affordable furniture for Ikea stores in the United States, including in 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 it on the grounds. After all, this is Virginia, where the “right to work” anti-union concept is a cherished idea. The firm hired Richmon law firm Jackson Lewis, which specializes in labor law, to help it blunt organizing efforts.
According to the Times, the story has been all over the media in Sweden but has gotten little attention in the United States. Small wonder, since unions have faced a bashing here, especially from budget-cutting Republicans in states such as Wisconsin. One 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.
When it comes to selling Virginia’s cheap labor, it doesn’t seem to matter what party state leaders belong to.