by Tara Bozick
Danville-area economic development officials are worried that recent union activity could blunt efforts to attract new jobs to the region.
Seventy-six percent of voting workers at an Ikea furniture-maker, Swedwood Danville, chose union representation in late July. Then less than two weeks later, workers at another Ikea supplier, mattress and sofa maker EBI LLC, voted against unionization by 70 percent, 281-118.
The Swedwood vote could hamper the area’s ability to compete for new business prospects, says Danville Economic Development Director Jeremy Stratton.
Southern Virginia’s economy is still reeling from the loss of jobs in the tobacco, textile and furniture industries. Danville, however, has had some success recruiting a number of foreign companies, including Swedwood and EBI’s parent company, Com.40, to set up local factories in recent years.
Manufacturers check into union activity before locating in an area. Local officials fear unionization of top employers could hurt efforts to attract an automotive manufacturer to a “mega-park” industrial site under development in Pittsylvania County. “It would not be beneficial at all,” Stratton says.
The 221-69 pro-union vote at Swedwood Danville came more than two years after the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers began its organizing campaign. The machinists union criticized Sweden-based home furnishings retailer Ikea for not living up to its worker-friendly image at its only Swedwood plant in the U.S.
The conflict gained international attention as the union publicized worker complaints of short notice for mandatory overtime, unsafe working conditions and discrimination. The Los Angeles Times followed the story, and “The Daily Show with Jon Stewart” played off the news, calling America “Sweden’s Mexico.”
Ikea found no evidence of discrimination at the 3-year-old Swedwood Danville plant, which has 375 employees. A U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration audit deemed the plant to be safe.
The surge in union activity could be part of a national trend as workers tire of production pressures or cuts to pay and benefits in a down economy, says President Doris Crouse-Mays of the Virginia AFL-CIO.
Even so, union membership in Virginia, a right-to-work state, has been one of the lowest in the nation, with just 2.9 percent of private sector workers in unions last year, compared with the national rate of 6.9 percent.
Yet, organizing workers typically proves easier in an area with a union tradition, says Barry T. Hirsch, labor economist at Georgia State University.
Danville has such a history. USW Local 831 represents more than 1,800 workers at Goodyear, a top Danville employer. About 12.3 percent of local workers were union members in 2008.
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