American employees as Third World workers

by Joe Ferullo

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A factory-focused battle in rural Virginia provides a stark look at what global corporatism means when the exploited Third World workers are Americans.

A compelling article in The Los Angeles Times details the conditions and anger at a Swedish-owned factory in Danville, Virginia that churns out low-cost furniture for IKEA stores -- the darling of hip, young urbanites.

Workers here complain of last-minute demands to work overtime, alleged racial bias, and a strong stance against a union trying to organize. Now, that actually doesn't sound all that unusual in the right-to-work states that dominate the South -- the difference here comes when you compare the treatment American workers get to their Swedish counterparts.

Sweden enjoys a reputation as some kind of socialist wonderland, and the IKEA company paints itself firmly in the foreground of that pro-worker picture. According to the Times, the company's code of conduct -- called IWAY -- guarantees workers the right to organize, and stipulates that all overtime be strictly voluntary.

Beyond that, Swedish workers have a minimum wage of $19-an-hour, and a government mandated five weeks of vacation.

In Virginia, the story is very different: workers' salaries start at $8-an-hour and vacation is 12 days a year -- eight of them on dates selected by the company. It doesn't end there: one-third of all employees at the Virginia factory are drawn in from a local temporary agency, and receive even lower wages -- with zero benefits.

What was seen as a manufacturing boon for small Danville -- hit hard by the loss of tobacco processing jobs -- has turned into a sour experience. Many workers have left the IKEA plant, even if it meant taking an even lower-wage job.

But what's most astounding about this story is the response by the IKEA subsidiary that owns the Danville factory. A spokeswoman acknowledged the pay gap between the U.S. and Sweden -- but said that this was "related to the standard of living and general conditions in the different countries."

Or, as a union organizer told the Times: "It's ironic that IKEA looks on the U.S. and Danville the way most people in the U.S. look at Mexico."

Ironic, for sure. But not unexpected: not after decades of declining living standards for American workers. Now they've become a Third World bargain for first-world Sweden -- if only they'll just shut up and take it the abuse.

That's a big "if" -- and makes the fight in Danville, Virginia worth watching.

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