I remember when Ikea came to Govan (now calling itself Braehead). Adverts to promote it were everywhere, and their TV spot used what was then Richard’s bar in Govan, just around the corner from where I lived. Playing on Govan’s reputation, it consisted of a few apparently hard men discussing the merits of soft furnishings in the pub, before we were told “Govan’s gone soft.”
It certainly got the tongues wagging locally, and it was noticeable as I did my rounds in Govan just how many people had been seduced by the world of the flat-pack, hot dogs and pear cider. I admit to having been one of them. Indeed, as someone who still lives just along the road, I’ve been a depressingly frequent visitor there in recent weeks as I prepare for a lockdown-delayed flitting. I dodged it for as long as possible. I have no patience for long queues at the best of times, it’s just a sign that places are under-employing. But I’ll confess that I had no idea the extent of the problems bubbling below the surface at Ikea.
It reached the surface when Ikea management chose to dismiss the USDAW convener at its Glasgow store. Richie Venton is a familiar face to many on the Left in Scotland, when we last met at a UCU picket earlier in the year it occurred to me that he’s an ever-present face at such actions. A more committed socialist and trade unionist you’d struggle to find. He has never shied away from bringing his solidarity to picket lines across the country over the years, but this time it is he who needs our solidarity.
Richie Venton was dismissed after an apparent breach of confidentiality. What crime was this? Did he give away the secret formula for the pear cider? Did he leak the latest rug designs to a bitter rival? Nothing so exciting, I’m afraid. All he did was tell his colleagues and members of the plans management had for them – otherwise known as the job of a union rep.
Make no mistake, this is as straight-forward an anti-union move as any you’ll see. In a sector which is notoriously difficult to organise, and is plagued with poor conditions, not only does Glasgow Ikea have the highest union density of any store in the UK and Ireland, it has rates of membership two-and-a-half times the next most unionised store, and twenty times that of the lowest. This record, and the unanimous support for Richie Venton at a recent employee meeting, not only show the strength of feeling in the workplace but tell us that as a trade unionist, Richie must be doing something right. Cynics out there might say “aye, but naebody’s deid,” and I’ve heard some in our movement shamefully fail to take organising in retail seriously – but they need to think again.
In recent weeks, people have been shocked by the details of appalling conditions facing carers the length and breadth of this land. Carers were forced to work in homes the Scottish government sent untested people from hospital back into; struggling on insecure contracts and low pay, they often had to make an impossible choice between having an income and risking spread a virus to their families. Public outrage was clear, and if Scotland had any sort of functioning system of accountability, heads would have rolled at the highest level.
In the midst of cases like this, and the pandemic more generally, it is perhaps understandable that the plight of our retail workers has not been heard. But similar, or even greater, levels of workplace insecurity exist in this sector. And as many of us blinked in the daylight of the loosening of lockdown, these workers were not only needed to service our basic needs in selling us groceries or clothes, but catering for the urge to redecorate after spending weeks looking at the same four walls.
The hours of queues witnessed as Ikea re-opened were testament to this. It’s been joked that Ikea’s one way system made them uniquely prepared for the new safety measures, and many would no doubt fall back on the clichés of efficiency and on their motto “a better everyday life for the many people,” as assurance that their employees were similarly cared for. Not a bit of it. Perhaps they don’t believe their own workforce is part of “the many”? “Everyday life” involves occasionally falling ill, and in a global pandemic that his killed people in their tens of thousands, it sadly not only involves people falling ill, but people shielding too.
The changes that workers in Ikea are objecting to are almost beyond belief from a major multinational corporations. Under the new proposals, workers who fall ill with coronavirus will be forced to rely on statutory sick pay of only £95 a week. The draconian absence policy can result in an employee ending up on statutory sick pay after only their third illness in a year. Even those with a perfect attendance record will only be able to receive their wages for a maximum of ten days – four short of the minimum fourteen day self-isolation guidelines required by the government. Ikea turned a profit of £11.2 billion last year.
To impose this policy in the middle of a global pandemic, and after previously insisting that employees who were shielding would be paid throughout, is nothing short of despicable. But not only did Ikea do this – they then dismissed the union rep for resisting these changes and simply informing his members of their plans. Members who, by the way, will be put at risk by a policy which clearly incentivises workers who show symptoms of the coronavirus to continue turning up to work. The entire episode is frankly beneath contempt.
Richie Venton was sacked for being a trade unionist, for fighting to ensure his members received their wages during the pandemic – shielding or not – rather than the derisory benefits on offer, or the threat of statutory sick pay hanging over their heads. He has paid the price for being an effective campaigner for his colleagues, and the imposition of the plans since his dismissal only serve to reinforce this truth.
But there is more to this than just a dispute over terms and conditions in a single operation. In a pandemic, and one that appears to be here for the foreseeable future, are we going to insist that people’s well-being is respected? Are we willing to watch retail workers forced to put themselves at risk in order that we can have a new bookcase? Some will, but let’s hope that many won’t, because to do so means not only turning our backs on people fighting a just cause, but putting us all at risk as infection spreads to and from workers unable to risk staying home for fear of losing their job.
Glasgow’s Ikea is built on the ashes of the docks now shrunk to a fraction of their size. The fight to unionise and give security in that industry was a long and bitter one, and maybe Ikea really did believe that “Govan’s gone soft” back in 2001. Let me be clear – it has not. The fight hasn’t left Govan, and while the industries and employers may have changed, the game hasn’t. We still live in a world where unscrupulous employers like Ikea will use any leverage to subdue workers – and if a pandemic won’t make them question the morality of their actions, nothing but class solidarity will.
Don’t join the queue at Ikea until they respect their workers. You don’t really need that new lampshade and you can get your chocolate elsewhere; think of Richie Venton’s example of solidarity with workers and customers alike, sign the petition to have him reinstated, and stand with him in the kind of solidarity he would have no hesitation in showing you.