Union fight heats up at Virginia Ikea factory

There are two strange things about the labor battle raging in a furniture factory in Danville, Va. for the last year. The first is that the employer in question, Swedwood, is a subsidiary of Ikea, better known for making particleboard look chic than for mistreating workers. The second is that the fight has less to do with wages than it does about other factors. Like weather.

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It’s easy to see the situation in terms of dollars. The glaring disparity between what the Danville workers make and what their European counterparts do ($8 an hour starting salary vs. $19) can’t be ignored, nor the fact that starting wages at the Danville plant used to be more than $9 and now barely hover above minimum wage.

But both Bill Street, member of the International Association of Machinists union that might soon represent the Swedwood workers, and several former Swedwood employees insist that the problems in Danville aren’t really monetary. “This is not, and never has been, about money,” Street says.

In fact, much of this situation boils down to something arguably more valuable in the dead scorching heat of a Virginia summer.

Air conditioning.

Street can rattle off plenty of grievances from the workers he’s spoken to, including racial discrimination, lousy overtime practices, and unreasonable bathroom-break policies. But in the middle of this summer’s unholy heat wave, few burdens feel heavier than working indoors without the cool caress of central AC.

To add insult to injury, there is some air conditioning at the Danville plant—in the supervisors’ offices.

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