Union Representation in the ‘Socially Responsible' Multinational: Ikea Retail in Spain, Sweden, Turkey and the USA

Thursday, 2 July 2015: 10:15 AM-11:45 AM
OLD.2.22 (Old Building)
John Logan, San Francisco State University, Berkeley, CA
Tony Royle, U of Bradford, Bradford, United Kingdom
Union representation in the socially responsible multinational: IKEA retail in Spain, Sweden, Turkey and the USA.

The article provides a comparative analysis of the varied nature of employee representation, union organizing and management attitudes towards unionization in IKEA retail outlets in four countries: Spain, Sweden, Turkey and the USA. IKEA is a multinational brand with operations in 44 countries, directly employing around 131,000 workers worldwide. The Green Business Times suggests that IKEA is among a number of Swedish companies which are known to be …leaders in sustainability and corporate responsibility (Tay, 2011). IKEA has also signed the 1999 United Nations Global Compact, which amongst other things upholds the right to freedom of association, the right to collective bargaining.

The data for Sweden and Spain derives from an ongoing qualitative European study based on 40 interviews in both countries as well as the attendance of one of the authors at the UNI-IKEA strategic alliance network in Copenhagen in 2012. The interviews were undertaken in the period between 2010 and 2014. Interviews were face to face and carried out with retail employees, managers, trade union representatives and trade union officials from the main union confederations in each country in Spain (CCOO, UGT) and the yellow union FETICO, in Sweden (Handels, HRF and Unionen). The Turkish section is based on interviews with over 50 workers in IKEA’s three Istanbul stores, and its stores in Ankara, Izmir and Bursa, and with interviews with union officials in Turkey and UNI officials in Geneva. The U.S. section of the paper is based primarily on interviews with union officials coordinating the IKEA organizing campaign.

Sweden is the home of IKEA with the first large store opening in 1958. The findings suggest that in Sweden IKEA retail employees are well organised with union shops in every store representing each of the three trade unions Handels, HRF and Unionen. Average density in Swedish IKEA retail stores is over 50 per cent, which although lower than the Swedish private sector average of 65 percent, is still high compared with other countries. Two union representatives also enjoy board-level representation and pay and conditions of work are determined by sector-level collective agreements. There are for example additional payments for unsociable hours; 75 percent of workers have permanent contracts and 30 percent work full-time. In Spain there is a very different situation, IKEA entered the Spanish market in 1996 and although pay and conditions of work are also largely determined by a sector-level collective agreement, IKEA management have encouraged the spread of a ‘yellow’ or ‘company’ union called FETICO. This ‘yellow’ union has dominated works council election rounds and thereby influenced sector-level collective bargaining rounds, undermines pay and conditions of work for Spanish workers. IKEA management also use FETICO to undermine and reduce the influence of the independent unions CCOO and UGT (Royle and Ortiz, 2009). The result is that only 30 percent of employees having permanent contracts and only 5 percent having full-time jobs.

In Turkey, the principal retail workers union, Koop-Is, has been conducting an organizing campaign at IKEA for almost three years. Turkey has experienced the greatest decline in private sector unionization in the OECD during the past decade, with private sector union density now below 4%. In addition, Turkish labour law offers relative weak protection for workers trying to form unions, and most private sector employers are strongly opposed to unionization. In many respects, IKEA provides a case study of private sector opposition to unionization in Turkey. The company, which is a legally independent franchisee of Inter-IKEA in Holland, has forced union activists to resign, pressured or bribed workers to resign from the union, discriminated against union members in promotions and work assignments, and used group and individual meetings to warn new employees against joining the union. However, the union campaign in Turkey also demonstrates the potential impact of global organizing campaigns. UNI Global Union has made Turkey a focus of its international campaign at IKEA. After UNI engaged in dialogue with senior management at IKEA in Sweden and Inter-IKEA in Holland, IKEA management in Turkey retreated from its most aggressive anti-union activities and the union now claims that it enjoys majority support among the Turkish workforce. However, Turkish management is still opposing unionization and the union is some distance away from achieving bargaining and a contract.

 In the United States, efforts by the United Food and Commercial Workers to organize IKEA are at a relatively early stage. However, retail workers are starting to mobilize around issues of low pay, erratic scheduling and a lack of full-time work. In common with management at most large retailers in the U.S., IKEA management is strongly opposed to unionization. Indeed, it appears that the company’s U.S. management presents one of the greatest obstacles to IKEA signing a global framework agreement with UNI Global Union. In addition to the ideological opposition to unionization that is common among U.S. managers, IKEA management argue that a successful union organizing campaign would be detrimental to their future careers in the retail sector, which is overwhelmingly non-union. Organizing IKEA in the U.S. may ultimately prove to be even more difficult than achieving recognition in Turkey.