Union fight heats up at Virginia Ikea factory
“It is so hot in that plant,” says Janis Wilborne, a former Swedwood employee who left in 2010 for medical reasons. “It’s extremely hot.” The few mounted fans throughout the factory didn’t do much to alleviate the heat, as she recalls. Danville’s average temperature in July is 90, two degrees above D.C.’s The temperature inside the aluminum factory, which has no protection from trees, is often hotter than it is outside.
“On the floor, there’s really no air circulating,” explains another employee who left in 2010. (She asked not be named because she still has relatives working at the plant and didn’t want to jeopardize their jobs.) “Every year people pass out.”
Neither woman is naïve to the difficulties of physical labor like the work done at Swedwood—Wilborne worked for 20 years prior at another factory—and both actually say that the plant is a good place to work. But the lack of regard for workers’ physical needs distresses them both.
Wilborne, who worked in quality control at Swedwood for two years, stresses her gratitude for getting the job at age 58 in economically depressed Danville. She raves about her former manager and department and says at one point, a union presence would have been unnecessary at the plant. When Wilborne first was handed a union pamphlet in 2009, she threw it in the trash. “[I] said what in the world are they doing here?” she recalls. “We’ve got it made. I mean, it was good. And all the sudden, for some reason, it started going in another direction.”
New management put new policies in place. Sunday overtime was eliminated. Vacation days became restricted. And according to employee accounts, small changes to the way the factory operated put a strain on workers, like taking away the three-wheel bicycles maintenance workers used to use to ride from one department to another.
“Each department’s the length and width of a football field,” explains Wilborne. She says workers couldn’t get to the bathroom or to a source of water in the 15 minutes allotted for breaks.
“They need more breaks,” she says. “It’s so hot out there. They need to be given more time.”
The unnamed former employee, a machinist, says during her tenure with Swedwood, workers had to ask someone to take their place on the line if they needed water. “You can just go get you a drink of water,” she says. At one point, she was a shift supervisor herself and says she tried to step in when people needed a drink. “You work at a fast pace,” she says. “You’re sweating. It’s hot. You’re going to get dehydrated.”
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