By David Bush and Doug Nesbitt
In early December, delegates at the opening day of the BC Federation of Labour convention gave a well-deserved standing ovation for the IKEA Richmond workers who were locked out for 527 days. While those workers were rightfully praised for standing tall against a bully boss, what is less well understood is their actual experience of the lockout and opinions of the deal that ultimately ended it.
After a strike in 2006, IKEA workers in Richmond BC experienced a deterioration in workplace relations with management. The strike defeated the company’s two-tier wage system, but IKEA management decided to push back. The problems in the workplace after 2006 foreshadowed the bitter 2013-14 lockout.
IKEA’s lockout was an effort, in the words of shopfloor union steward Dot Tompkins, “to rewrite the collective agreement.”
“They wanted to slow down the wage progression, lower the top wages, tie wages to ‘productivity’, cut benefits substantially, contract out the housekeeping department, allow managers the right to work on the floor, prevent shop stewards from holding any positions of leadership, demolish the union security clause and many other things,” says Tompkins.
For Anna Canizares, a long time IKEA employee in the showroom, “keeping the existing benefits package and not having things scaled back” would have been acceptable.
Labour solidarity played an important role in keeping spirits up on the lines. Union locals brought coffee, walked and talked on the lines, and hung out with the pickets. These simple acts were very uplifting, says Tompkins. For her, the ILWU and the Vancouver & District Labour Council were trade union allies who really stepped up.
There was a lot of support from the BCFed, especially in the beginning, but we were counting on a call for a boycott or a hot edict.
Keith Austin, a long time employee at IKEA Richmond, says, “I think the labour movements actions were all right. Whether it was coffee or donuts on the picket line, or the international commission of inquiry, or the steadfast financing of a lengthy and expensive labour dispute, the actions of the labour movement were a positive contribution in a very difficult situation.”
Tompkins noted that there was lots of local solidarity, but more was needed. “Some of the big players seemed to have been unable or unwilling to help out. There was a lot of support from the BCFed, especially in the beginning, but we were counting on a call for a boycott or a hot edict.”
Canizares points out that despite rallies, “they simply did not have enough power to overcome a multinational and billion dollar company.” To win, says Tompkins, there should have been “a lot more press and definitely a boycott.”
Canizares frames the boycott another way: “I think at the end of the day, when you have a store that remains open for business and a society that tends to be selfish in nature, you can’t get the pressure to move on issues that maybe you have without those factors playing a role.”
…it seems to me that after a certain time period (three months, six months) any labour dispute should be made a national priority of the Canadian labour movement
Austin believes the union underestimated IKEA’s determination to break the union, and that only a sustained public pressure campaign could have led to victory.
“A global company needs a global campaign with consistent pressure. In the end, the actions of the labour movement were a series of events that by themselves on the day, were successful. If they had been continuous, and consistent, Ikea would have had more incentive to act. Because they were short term events, with long time periods in between, without consistent elevation, IKEA Canada won the communications and media relations piece of the dispute easily.”
“I am not an expert on all the tools of the labour movement in a dispute of this nature, but it seems to me that after a certain time period (three months, six months) any labour dispute should be made a national priority of the Canadian labour movement,” says Austin.
A new contract
The ten year agreement that ended the lockout was the result of binding arbitration mediated by Vince Ready. The union and IKEA management agreed to binding terms drawn up by Ready. Workers did not vote on the contract.
I did not get a vote on the final binding recommendations. If I had a vote, we would still be on the picket line.
“Terrible,” says Leisha Capers, who works at returns and exchanges. Her response sums up the workers’ feelings towards the new contract.
Austin says, “I did not get a vote on the final binding recommendations. If I had a vote, we would still be on the picket line.”
One of the major mistakes the union made according to Austin was accepting Vince Ready in the first place. “He has a history of siding with employers and the final contract was outrageously biased towards the employers position,” says Austin.
“I also work in the school system and at one point both my jobs were behind picket lines,” says Lisa Snickars, an IKEA employee of 23 years. “Unlike the teachers, we did not go to a vote whether to accept arbitration. Teamsters totally took the vote out of our hands.”
Scabs were among the major issues that prolonged the battle. Over thirty workers crossed the lines at the start of the lockout. The union was unable to win any language that would see the scabs fired once the lockout was over.
The disciplined workers were very passionate about standing up for us while we were getting bullied by the big guys.
“They bought out the picketers who were disciplined,” explains Capers, because the company was “scared to see what impact they will have working inside. The disciplined workers were very passionate about standing up for us while we were getting bullied by the big guys.”
Who were these disciplined pickets? Tompkins says they were the people who were “walking too slowly across the driveway, taking photos of scabs and yelling at a security guard who nearly ran them over.”
They wanted to get rid of long term leaders, shop stewards, and activists from within the ranks.
The offer to buy-out these disciplined workers was extended to scabs, though on much better terms, by Ready. The buyouts, according to Austin, will weaken the power of the workers in the store:
“There has been very little turnover amongst the full time and supervisory ranks in the store, they are long term employees (15+ years). The buyouts have opened a number of key positions in the store, there will be new blood in those jobs. The managers will be in a more powerful position with so many new people in key roles. The buyouts have been accepted by the shop stewards, so there will be new shop stewards in the store, which will also weaken the union. They wanted to get rid of long term leaders, shop stewards, and activists from within the ranks.”
Not surprisingly, the company’s bitter lockout and the contract forced upon the workers has left some bitter feelings.
We suffered and sacrificed for 18 very long months for what feels like nothing.
Canizares is on maternity leave and hasn’t seen the contract yet but is extremely hopeful she won’t return to work for IKEA. “Everything I did was based on my morals and values as an individual. However, that does not negate my ultimate disappointment and sadness in the final outcome. We suffered and sacrificed for 18 very long months for what feels like nothing.”
“Big corporations can pick and choose what and how they want to react and in the end it’s all about their bottom line and the all mighty dollar,” says Snickars.
Time for everyone who works for a union to become a part-time organizer
Tompkins feels that if she could do things differently, she would have “pushed harder for action and taken more into our own hands with regards to asking for help and contacting the media.”
“I wish I had the courage to be vocal like others. I learned never settle for less no matter how long it takes,” says Capers.
“The labour movement needs political power from working Canadians. The leadership of the labour movement is living a different life and is too disconnected from the people inside and outside the union movement it purports to represent to be truly effective. Time for everyone who works for a union to become a part-time organizer,” says Austin.
There is no substitution for morals or values; money can’t buy you that.
“This was a lesson in solidarity and greed – and how the two don’t mix. We learned very quickly who we could trust and who we could not. People’s characters became very apparent. There were people who took a stand that you would not have expected to, and people who didn’t take a stand except with their mouths,” says Tompkins. “There is no substitution for morals or values; money can’t buy you that. We all became very close and learned to love people we hardly knew before.”