DANVILLE, Va. - The manager of IKEA's Swedwood furniture factory here, Bert Lundgren, says the company bars the Machinists union from talking to workers at the facility, because "that's how the American system works." He says that, in accordance with what is permissible under U.S. labor law, he has "absolutely no dialogue" with the union and that all company "dialogue" is directly with the workers. His position is that there is no need for a union, "a third party," to get between him and his workers.
What he does not say is that the company has already brought in its own third party, Jackson Lewis, the "mother" of all union-busters.
IKEA hired the firm to tell it what to do almost as soon as the union began organizing here a year and a half ago. Jackson Lewis, in the business since 1958, is the company even other union-busting firms turn to when they want to learn the state of the art tricks of their trade.
"IKEA was quick to learn how it works in this country," said Bill Street, the lead organizer for the International Association of Machinists organizing drive at the plant here. "They took advantage of lax labor laws and they cut wages. Then they went out and hired these thousand-dollar-a-day lawyers to take away the right of their workers to form a union."
Street said that Jackson Lewis lawyers even forced him to leave a mediation session recently in which a worker had requested Street's services as his representative. The union had complained to the Equal Employment Opportunities Commission when the company fired a worker described by one supervisor as "too old for the job." When the EEOC, company representatives and the worker, with Street as his representative, entered the mediation room, the Jackson Lewis lawyer pulled the company rep outside and told IKEA to insist that Street leave the meeting. Both the company and the EEOC reps went along with the demands of the Jackson Lewis lawyer and the worker ended up being unrepresented.
"It's what galls me the most," said Street. "These smart thousand-dollar-a-day lawyers deny a worker his basic human right to representation at a hearing."
Jackson Lewis, it turns out, does a lot more than that.
Among many other services they offer are "How to Stay Union Free" seminars that involves two or more day workshops for "bona fide management representatives."
At the seminars employers are told to go around, if not actually break, U.S. labor laws, said a union activist who snuck into one of these seminars.
Company reps at the meeting were told that it was entirely acceptable to fire any and all union organizers but that the official reason for firing had to be "job performance related."
American Rights at Work, an affiliate of the AFL-CIO, issued an action alert May 12 urging the public to send protest letters about IKEA's union busting to Mikael Ohlsson, the company's CEO.
"Instead of respecting its workers' right to form a union like IKEA does in Sweden, " said Liz Cataneo, the group's president, "Its subsidiary in Virginia hired union busting consultants."
Jackson Lewis, the consultant firm they have hired, has been plying its trade in a variety of creative ways for years.
Back in 1996 the company taught Borders Bookstores how to use its counter-culture image to destroy union organizing efforts. They advised Borders managers to stress to workers how unions were "out of date," "divisive, "and "a threat to the New Age, Borders culture."
Another approach pushed by Jackson Lewis: Tell workers that unions are okay for other companies but "not for our family." Managers are urged to express "sadness" that some workers would want to bring in a union, "a third party," to get between members of the "family." Again, the managers are warned not to let on to workers that the company has already brought in its own third party, Jackson Lewis.
In its determination to portray labor unions as the "outside" or "third party" Jackson Lewis, among its many tricks, has directed payroll managers to deduct the maximum dues amount from workers' checks during an organizing drive, and then reissue the deducted amount in a separate check. The smaller checks are given out with a note that reads, "This is what you can expect every month if the union gets in."