Disputes at IKEA

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Staff at an IKEA store in Paris took strike action in February 2002, calling for'respect for individuals and the reopening of a dialogue between trades unions and management', along with the reinstatement of six employees who were claimed to have been 'sacked with no justification'. However, management is not planning to go back on its decisions to dismiss the six workers.

Employees at the north Paris branch (in Seine-Saint-Denis) of IKEA, the Swedish-based home furnishing retailer, took strike action on 2 and 14 February 2002. They were demanding 'respect for individuals and the reopening of a dialogue between trade unions and management', as well as the reinstatement of six employees whom they felt were 'sacked with no justification'.

In spring 2001, works council elections were held at the Seine-Saint-Denis store. The election led to the formation of a new works council team made up of young employees, within which considerable unity has reportedly grown up between representatives of the five trade unions with representative status - the French Democratic Confederation of Labour (Confédération française démocratique du travail, CFDT), the French Confederation of Professional and Managerial Staff-General Confederation of Professional and Managerial Staff (Confédération française de l'encadrement-Confédération générale des cadres, CFE-CGC), the General Confederation of Labour (Confédération générale du travail, CGT), the French Christian Workers' Confederation (Confédération française des travailleurs chrétiens, CFTC) and the General Confederation of Labour-Force ouvrière (Confédération générale du travail-Force ouvrière, CGT-FO). This team, acting with the support of the previous elected representatives, decided to debate working conditions, which were considered to have become increasingly difficult since the management's implementation of a 'new management style' more than three years previously.

In June 2001, the IKEA works council commissioned an audit, which was at the root of the subsequent dispute. This audit, carried out by the SECAFI ALPHA consultancy group, criticised the management, claiming that 'vast profits' were being made by the store, while the returns of its profit-sharing scheme were falling.

The employee representatives claim that working conditions have worsened since this audit report - to which management did not respond - generating 'a climate of permanent suspicion'. It is alleged that this has taken the form of letters being sent to employees by recorded delivery over minor lateness in arriving at work, close-circuit TV monitoring, and various forms of alleged harassment, victimisation, punishments and pressure. This deteriorating climate of industrial relations was claimed to be the cause of a high level of absence from work, as well as some cases of depression.

The management is also accused by employee representatives of attempting to weaken the workforce's capacity for mobilisation, particularly by means of sacking unionised employees. Alleged cases include: an employee made redundant immediately after the expiry of the period of protection granted him by his mandate as a union and staff representative; the dismissal of a unionised female union member on a fixed-term contract; and a supervisor belonging to CFE-CGC who was dismissed after writing a letter on behalf of this employee.

The IKEA human resources department states that there were only 12 redundancies between September 2001 and the end of February 2002. It it states that these redundancies were made on three grounds: insubordination (insults made to a head of department); clear refusal to apply works rules; and criminal financial actions (ie sending out false invoices). IKEA's management has also filed suits against certain dismissed staff members whom it thinks are guilty of embezzlement.

With regard to the strikes in February 2002, employee representatives feel that the management is exerting pressure in order to make mobilisation among employees difficult. On 9 February, when the management was expecting a second day of strike action, employees claimed that police officers were present in the area of the shop, and that temporary agency workers had been recruited by the management. According to some of the striking workers, management called in managerial staff and temporary agency workers to staff the tills for the two days of strike action. Employee representatives also criticise one-on-one meetings with management to which the employees were allegedly summoned, in order to try and prevent them from taking part in the strike, and the recruitment of part-time staff supposedly in order to thwart any attempt at mobilisation.

The management categorically denies these accusations and claims that the fixed-term contract staff and temporary agency workers had in fact been taken on in December 2001 at the workforce delegates' request, in order to cope with queues at the checkouts. After meeting with the unions, the management confirmed its policy of refusing to reinstate the sacked workers.

These strikes and their portrayal in the media have again tarnished IKEA's image, which has apparently suffered in recent years since an alleged racial discrimination incident related to recruitment at one of its shops in the Lyon area. Following that incident, IKEA French management set up an anti-discrimination committee (comprised of representatives of the management and union activists from CFDT, CFE-CGC, CFTC and CGT-FO, though CGT withdrew) which, in its concluding report (issued in November 2000) found no concrete cases of racial discrimination, but revealed a case of anti-union discrimination during workplace elections.

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