Spartacist Canada No. 180
Retail Workers Need a Fighting Labour Movement
Victory to Locked-Out Ikea Workers!
Workers at the Ikea furniture store in the Vancouver suburb of Richmond have been on the picket line since May of last year, when the company locked them out and imposed a contract with a tiered wage system. Under Ikea’s edicts, it could take new employees more than 20 years to reach the full rate of pay. The workers beat back an earlier attempt to impose a tiered wage system through a three-week strike in 2007. This time around, they have shown their determination by voting down insulting contract offers four times.
The young, racially integrated workforce, including many women, is part of Teamsters Local 213, which also represents thousands of workers across B.C. in manufacturing, warehousing, construction and freight. The workers’ defiance of the employer for nearly a year is proof positive that the retail sector is no exception to the class struggle. “We refuse to accept the sweeping and humiliating deteriorations the company is trying to force us to accept,” said one locked-out worker on a union delegation to Sweden, where Ikea was founded. “More than 300 of us refuse to surrender to Ikea’s threats, despite the harsh economic conditions we’ve experienced during the lockout.”
Some 35 workers bowed to management intimidation and crossed the picket lines to return to work. The union defended itself by expelling them all as scabs. Security guards menace picketers with continuous video surveillance, while the company has escalated its giveback demands. After a veteran worker, a cancer survivor, was cut off long-term disability, a manager told her she would get coverage restored if she crossed the picket line. She refused, vowing, “I couldn’t do that to the people I work with.” The union fought on her behalf and the company eventually backed down.
The 2007 strike was able to beat back Ikea’s attacks because it shut down the store. But this time management and the ex-union scabs have kept it open on reduced hours. The union recently won an injunction to stop Ikea from bringing in other scabs. Though welcoming any such victories, a militant strike leadership would recognize the need to build strong picket lines, reinforced by other unions and their supporters among minorities and youth, in order to shut the store down tight. It is through the unleashing of social power, not reliance on the bosses’ courts and labour boards, that the workers will find a way forward.
Capitalist War on the Unions
Working people today face an anti-labour “austerity” barrage from capitalist governments at every level. Social services from EI to health care are on the chopping block. Most recently, Canada Post announced the end of home postal delivery and up to 8,000 job cuts. Billions have been ripped off from workers’ pensions. The federal Tories have repeatedly broken strikes, just like their Liberal predecessors; now they want to ban them altogether in big parts of the public sector. A new Alberta law bans public-sector unionists from even talking about the need for a strike, while unions that engage in “illegal” strikes face $1 million a day in fines.
With nearly half a million manufacturing jobs axed since 2006, retail and other service jobs are the bosses’ blueprint for reshaping the entire workforce. Many workers who still have jobs have been forced to take huge cuts in pay and benefits. The bosses’ watchwords are: part time, on contract, low wages, no benefits, flexible schedules and above all no union. Nearly two thirds of all jobs created since the provincial Liberals’ 2011 “B.C. Jobs Plan” are seasonal or casual. Half of all workers in the Toronto and Hamilton area today have precarious jobs, with immigrants and other minorities bearing the brunt. Increasing numbers have to resort to food banks to survive.
The conditions of such “McJobs” are notorious. Day in and day out, front-line managers humiliate cashiers in front of customers. Then, in the privacy of their offices, they manipulate workers’ schedules and hours, choking off the livelihoods and disrupting the lives of anyone who fails to curry their favour. Workers’ confidence is gnawed at by anxiety from the unrelenting threat of layoffs, zero-hour workweeks and dismissals. Workers at Wal-Mart, McDonald’s and other notoriously low-wage companies have staged protests for a paycheque you can live on and better working conditions. Some have risked all but certain firing by fighting to organize a union.
The Richmond Ikea workers already have a union, in itself a big step forward. It is one of only two unionized Ikea stores in North America (the other is in Montreal). But the hard truth is that retail workers atomized in thousands of separate stores do not have the social power on their own to put a wrench in the bosses’ profit machine. Winning broader unionization as well as big gains in wages and benefits requires mobilizing the power of workers who are strategically positioned along the supply chain that provides the goods for the retail outlets.
The Ikea workers have received support from the B.C. Federation of Labour, the International Transport Workers’ Federation (ITF) and others. The International Longshore and Warehouse Union, which organizes workers at the Vancouver-area docks, joined an international day of solidarity with the locked-out Teamsters on December 17. While longshoremen rallied outside the store and at Deltaport and the Fraser Surrey Docks, other unionists demonstrated in Scandinavian countries and as far away as Australia and Japan.
But critically absent has been the kind of mobilization of labour’s power that can hit Ikea where it hurts. Where Ikea and other corporate behemoths are particularly vulnerable is in their dependence on the steady movement of goods through the “just-in-time” global cargo chain, with its key choke points. The bosses could be brought to their knees if the union movement organized secondary boycotts, refusing to handle goods destined for the Richmond store.
The power of collective action by working people was shown at the end of February when more than a thousand truckers at Port Metro Vancouver went on strike over working conditions and low rates. Militant pickets by the United Truckers Association blocked operations at Canada’s largest port, which handles nearly half a billion dollars in goods every day. A few days later, the Vancouver Container Truckers Association (part of Unifor) voted to join them on strike. The port bosses quickly moved to get a strikebreaking injunction to stop picketing by the truckers, many of whom are of South Asian origin.
“Ikea Values” and Union Bureaucrats
Most of the key weapons in labour’s arsenal—mass pickets, hot cargoing, secondary strikes—are “illegal” under the bosses’ laws. Yet everything of value the workers movement has won has come through mobilizing labour’s ranks in hard-fought struggles against the rulers and their whole body of anti-worker legislation.
The top union bureaucracy—a relatively privileged layer that long ago separated itself from its base, the union membership—constantly cites the capitalists’ anti-labour laws to justify its failure to organize the kinds of struggles that can win. Through their support to the purported “national interests” of Canadian capitalism and their loyalty to the right-wing social democrats of the NDP, the labour misleaders tie the unions to the enemy class. B.C. NDP leader Adrian Dix and federal MP Libby Davies may have shown up at a couple of rallies for the locked-out Richmond workers, but the New Democrats have their own long history of strikebreaking in B.C., including against school support workers in 2000 when the party ran the province.
Rather than mobilize militant labour action to win a union victory, the B.C. Fed tops are pushing a toothless consumer boycott of Ikea’s Vancouver-area stores. For their part, leaders of the Teamsters organized a “global commission of inquiry” into the lockout together with the European-based ITF and UNI Global Union. Its report, released late last year, laments that Ikea has “lost track of its Swedish values” and that management in Richmond “has abandoned the stated values of the ‘IKEA family’.”
The patriarch of said family is one Ingvar Kamprad. In 1943, the same year he founded Ikea, Kamprad joined the Swedish Nazi party and served it as a functionary and a recruiter. He kept contact with its supporters until at least 1950, five years after the Soviet Red Army smashed Hitler’s Third Reich and put an end to the Holocaust. Fascism has always sought to eradicate the organized workers movement in order to shore up capitalist rule. At the same time, the Nazis sought to paper over the conflict between workers and capitalists through chauvinist propaganda portraying the nation as a happy and united family.
Such is the origin of Ikea’s corporate values. Kamprad’s transparently phony egalitarianism, embodied in his modest car and Ikea’s slogan of furniture “for the many,” melts away before the fact that he is the richest man in Europe and fifth richest in the world. Now the world’s largest furniture retailer, Ikea last year made profits of 3.3 billion euros ($5 billion) through savage exploitation and anti-union attacks.
Revelations that Ikea used private investigators to spy on and entrap employees in France have provoked outrage. When workers in Turkey managed to organize a union, the company retaliated with harassment and firings. After the workforce at a furniture assembly plant in Virginia owned by an Ikea subsidiary voted to join the Machinists union three years ago, the company worked overtime to try and block this. Full-time workers there start at $8 an hour, while those hired from temporary contractors get even less.
The Need for Revolutionary Leadership
Ikea’s peculiarities aside, all capitalist enterprises, and all capitalist states, bolster their domination by projecting a false sense of common interests between the boss and the worker. Workers slave and bosses profit, but everyone is supposedly on the same team. Union bureaucrats often seek to shame the employer into upholding its own declared principles or those of the nation as a whole. “Ikea values,” “Swedish values,” “Canadian values,” it’s all the same: by pushing nationalism or loyalty to the employer, the pro-capitalist labour misleaders help to spread the lie that the exploiters and the exploited can and must work together for the common good.
Working people need a leadership that recognizes that the interests of the working class and the capitalist class are separate and directly opposed to one another. The workers must fight to resist all of the attacks on wages, benefits and jobs. It is necessary to demand decent jobs for all through shortening the workweek at no loss in pay and that wages be fully indexed to inflation. A massive program of public works is needed to rebuild the decaying infrastructure of this country. Medicare, welfare, pensions and other crucial social programs must be vastly expanded to meet the needs of the entire population. Such demands directly challenge the profit-driven capitalist system. They thus point to the need for the working class to do away with the whole system of wage slavery.
The class-struggle perspective necessary to organize the unorganized and revitalize the labour movement is integrally linked to the fight for a new leadership of the working class. Unlike the pro-capitalist NDP, a revolutionary workers party would fight not only to regain what the working people have lost in recent decades but to rip power from and expropriate the tiny class of exploiters, from Kamprad and his lackeys to the owners of the banks and major industries. Working people and oppressed minorities will have a real future when the capitalist state has been swept away through socialist revolution, creating a society where the wealth produced by labour will be used to the benefit of all, not the profit of a few.