Los Angeles Times’ Nathaniel Popper Wins April Sidney for Story on Ikea’s Anti-Union Practices in the United States | Hillman Foundation

Los Angeles Times’ Nathaniel Popper Wins April Sidney for Story on Ikea’s Anti-Union Practices in the United States

NEW YORK: The Sidney Hillman Foundation announced today that Los Angeles Times reporter Nathaniel Popper has won the April Sidney Award for his exposé of the anti-union practices of the supposedly union-friendly Ikea, the huge international furniture retailer.

Popper reported that while the company’s labor force is fully unionized in Sweden, where the minimum wage is $19 an hour and workers receive five weeks of government-mandated paid vacation, at Ikea’s three-year-old factory in Danville, Virginia, full-time employees start at $8 an hour with 12 vacation days–eight of them on dates determined by the company.

The story’s other major findings:

  • The International Assn. of Machinists and Aerospace Workers is trying to organize the Virginia factory’s 335 workers, and the union says a majority of eligible employees have signed cards expressing interest.
  • In response, the factory hired the union-busting law firm of Jackson Lewis, “which has made its reputation keeping unions out of companies.”  
  • Workers said they had been required to attend meetings at which management discouraged union membership.
  •  Six African American employees have filed discrimination complaints with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, alleging that all the best jobs are reserved for whites.

A spokesman for the American branch of the company refused to comment to the Los Angeles Times. A spokeswoman for Ikea subsidiary Swedwood in Sweden called the situation in Danville “sad” but said she could not discuss the complaints of specific employees. She said she had heard “rumors” about anti-union meetings at the plant but added that “this wouldn’t be anything that would be approved by the group management in Sweden.”

Per-Olaf Sjoo, the head of the Swedish union in Swedwood factories, told Popper that he was baffled by the friction in Danville. Ikea’s code of conduct, known as IWAY, guarantees workers the right to organize and stipulates that all overtime be voluntary.

“Ikea is a very strong brand and they lean on some kind of good Swedishness in their business profile. That becomes a complication when they act like they do in the United States,” said Sjoo. “For us, it’s a huge problem.”

Bill Street, who has tried to organize the Danville workers for the machinists union, said Ikea was taking advantage of the weaker protections afforded to U.S. workers. “It’s ironic that Ikea looks on the U.S. and Danville the way that most people in the U.S. look at Mexico,” the union organizer said.

The International Labor Rights Forum added Ikea to its Sweatshop Hall of Fame in 2010.

Nathaniel Popper is the 32-year-old New York business correspondent for the Los Angeles Times. Since joining the paper in 2010 he has written about the role of Wall Street banks in the financial crisis, the online poker industry and the private-equity induced collapse of fruit seller Harry & David.

He came to the Times from the Forward, the national Jewish newspaper, where he did a number of investigations and special projects. His articles exposing the working conditions at the country’s largest kosher meat packing plant, Agriprocessors, won a Deadline Club Award from the New York chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists. He has also written for the Wall Street JournalThe Nation, The New York Times and the Columbia Journalism Review.

Popper grew up in Pittsburgh and graduated from Harvard in 2002 with a degree in History and Literature. He lives in Brooklyn with his wife and dog.

Nathaniel Popper

APRIL, 2011

Why did you decide to look into Ikea’s Danville factory?
I heard about the tensions at Ikea when I was working on an earlier story about the decline of the gourmet fruit company Harry & David. It immediately piqued my interest because here you had an iconic global brand that held itself out as a responsible corporate citizen. This was an interesting experiment in how European corporate values make the transition to America, with its more laissez faire approach to labor issues.

The other thing that drew me to this story was Danville’s isolation from the normal travel routes of mainstream journalists – stuck in the rural southern edge of Virginia. This is the kind of place that too often gets ignored by the national media, but the fact that one of the town’s biggest employers flies a Swedish flag out front is a reminder of how much out of the way places like this are shaped by broader national and international forces.

What surprised you as you did your research?
I knew Danville was isolated geographically, but I was still surprised by the degree to which the people working in the factory and in the town were oblivious of Ikea and what it stood for. As I began learning about the factory, I was also struck by how much the attitudes and assumptions in the factory – which was ostensibly set up by a detail-oriented international company – were shaped by local values and tensions. Whatever Ikea might be thinking back in Europe, the day-to-day operations were largely being run by people who were products of rural Virginia.

What has the response been since you published it?
The immediate reaction came from people who lived in Danville and worked at Ikea. Because the local newspaper had only superficially covered the problems at the plant people were largely in the dark. The story seemed to liberate the local paper to write a bit more frankly about the problems at the plant, and that created a chance for the discussion to be fleshed out on a local level. Ikea responded by getting in touch with the union that has been trying to organize workers at the plant. And the international umbrella organization for labor unions decided to put its muscle behind pushing for change at the factory. So far, though, the sources I’ve talked to have said that little has changed inside the factory.

Is there something you wish you had room to include in the piecebut could not?
I spent days talking to people in Danville, but in the end many of the personal stories had to be left out in order to keep the article to a length that readers would be willing to make it through. The article thus described many of the problems, but did not get into many of the personal trials and tribulations that make the situation in Danville so human and moving.

Los Angeles Times

Nathaniel Popper