Business

Stoughton Ikea’s warehouse crew pickets over demand to unionize

 Ikea workers and supporters picketed at the store in Stoughton early Monday to demand union recognition for overnight warehouse staff.
GEORGE RIZER FOR THE BOSTON GLOBE
Ikea workers and supporters picketed at the store in Stoughton early Monday to demand union recognition for overnight warehouse staff.

Overnight warehouse workers at the Ikea in Stoughton picketed at the store early Monday in an effort to demand union recognition, a work stoppage that prevented deliveries from being unloaded and shelves from being restocked in the hours before the store opened.

The Stoughton workers’ union efforts are a first for retail workers at a US Ikea store and could have ripple effects, some speculated.

A majority of Ikea’s 33 warehouse workers have signed union authorization cards and a public petition to join the United Food and Commercial Workers union, but management has not moved to negotiate a contract, said union spokeswoman Moira Bulloch.

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In all, the store employs 279 workers, but only the warehouse crew is seeking to unionize.

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Ikea spokeswoman Mona Liss said it will not recognize the union until the department holds a secret ballot election administered by the National Labor Relations Board. Workers at four of Ikea’s five US distribution centers are represented by unions, authenticated by a secret ballot vote, she said.

“When union representation is selected by Ikea co-workers through the secret ballot process, Ikea is committed to building and maintaining a constructive and cooperative relationship with the union, built upon a foundation of mutual respect,” Liss said in a statement.

Like many unions, the UFCW opposes secret ballot elections because it gives the company time to discourage workers from voting in favor.

The union’s complaint last year against Ikea with the labor board was settled this year when Ikea agreed to post notices explaining workers have the right to unionize, Bulloch said.

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Ikea, based in Sweden, is known as a fairly progressive employer. The average minimum hourly wage among the 12,000 retail workers in the United States, will increase to $11.87 an hour on Jan. 1. That represents a 10 percent raise. The company also offers its workers 401(k) plans, profit sharing, and pre-tax benefits for same-sex married couples no matter where they live.

One of the issues that drove the overnight warehouse workers in Stoughton to form a union is a new attendance policy, said forklift driver Shawn Morrison, 28. The policy tracks each time a worker can’t make it to work or shows up late, even by a few minutes, Morrison said, and these “occurrences” can lead to disciplinary action, including termination.

“Most of our workers get about four hours of sleep a night, if they’re lucky,” he said. “You can just imagine how those occurrences can happen when you get absolutely no sleep, you’ve got kids in school.”

The actions in Stoughton follow major demonstrations around the country last week by fast-food employees and other low-wage workers, who are demanding $15 an hour and the right to unionize. The prominence of Ikea makes it a prime target for the movement, said Tom Juravich, a professor of labor studies at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, and if the union succeeds in Stoughton, it could have a ripple effect. “There’s a lot of momentum around this right now,” he said. If unions succeed in getting a foothold in retail, he added, “it actually has pretty large implications.”

The Ikea workers’ actions also drew national attention from Democratic presidential candidates.

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“In my view, companies which fight workers who wish to bargain collectively are culpable in exacerbating the gap between rich and poor in America,” Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders wrote in a letter to US Ikea president Lars Petersson last week.

Fellow Democratic presidential candidate Martin O’Malley also wrote to Petersson urging him to recognize the Stoughton union.

Globe correspondent Jack Newsham contributed to this report. Katie Johnston can be reached at katie.johnston@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @ktkjohnston.