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Hardships pile up on Richmond Ikea picket line

Six-month long dispute drags on as Christmas fast approaches
Derek Drake and Alix MacDonald walk the picket line outside the Ikea store in Richmond.

A six-and-a-half-month labour dispute at Ikea’s Richmond store has turned Christmas into a bitter dream for picketing union member Alix MacDonald.

“A lot of people here are struggling. Some have had to go to the food bank,” said MacDonald, 46, gesturing towards other pickets at the Swedish furniture giant’s store on a sunny late-November afternoon.

“But Christmas isn’t about what’s under the tree. It’s about family. It’s about unity.”

Fate has recently delivered a series of harsh blows to MacDonald. Her father died a few months before Teamsters Local 213 began picketing Ikea Richmond on May 13.

Around that time, MacDonald was diagnosed with breast cancer and had a mastectomy. Her husband was laid off from his job for three months, though he has since returned to work.

But MacDonald, one of 350 Ikea workers off the job, said it’s the tiny hardships imposed by the dispute that trouble her most.

“The kids didn’t get a summer vacation this year,” the Ikea cash supervisor said of her 14-year-old daughter and 17-year-old son.

“I can’t give my daughter $20 to go the mall with her friends. We don’t go the movies and we don’t go on day trips to Vancouver to walk on the beach.

“My mother-in-law and father-in-law have had to help us financially.”

The tussle between the Teamsters and Ikea, the province’s second longest ongoing labour dispute, shows no signs of a quick resolution. No talks are scheduled, but both sides say they’re ready to resume bargaining — if the other party is reasonable.

An attempt at reaching a mediated settlement in July collapsed when workers voted down the company’s overhauled offer.

For the union, the main issue in the dispute initially was a two-tier wage system for long-term and newer employees demanded by the company in its first offer.

In its second, mediated offer, Ikea revised the two-tier system by offering lump-sum payments and a complex system of percentage pay hikes based on what the union calls unrealistic sales targets.

“We didn’t feel the sales goals and productivity measures were achievable,” said Anita Dawson, business agent for Teamsters Local 213. “Sure, you might get to the top wage rate, but it might take you 20 years to get there.”

Dawson said workers would be satisfied to return to work under the terms of their expired contract.

Ikea wants to cut staff costs and improve productivity at the store, which it says is 30 per cent lower than its best-performing store in Canada.

Ikea Richmond has the worst productivity record in Canada and the highest staffing costs, said Ikea spokeswoman Madeleine Lowenborg-Frick.

“Ikea is asking the Richmond store to improve productivity from being the lowest-performing store in the country to the seventh out of 12. The sales goals set out by Ikea are attainable.”

Fifty per cent of Richmond employees make at least $18 an hour and 25 per cent make at least $21 an hour, wages that are above the retail industry standard, Lowenborg-Frick said.

The Teamsters insist the dispute is a lockout; Ikea calls it a strike. On Sept. 13, B.C.’s Labour Relations Board ruled that the dispute “meets the definition of strike under the Code.”

The dispute has been complicated by the action of 35 former union members who crossed the picket line to return to work.

Individual union members are angry about that, saying they believe the dispute would have been settled had the workers not crossed the line.

The union, which has expelled the 35 workers, says the issue of whether they can return to work after the dispute ends is still to be determined. Ikea vows to fight for their right to return to work to the Supreme Court of Canada, if it must.

Ikea has had a store at the Richmond site since 1976, making it the chain’s oldest store in North America. It spent about $100 million to build a new Richmond store that opened about a year before the dispute.

The store remains open seven days a week but on reduced hours. The restaurant, bistro and children’s play area are closed.

To ramp up pressure, the Teamsters have asked the public around the world to not shop at Ikea until the dispute is settled.

Lowenborg-Frick responds that trying to hurt business will not benefit anyone in the long run.

On the picket line, union member Derek Drake said he has dug in for a long struggle.

The 49-year-old furniture salesman put money away for a rainy-day fund about a year before the dispute, convinced the company had been planning a showdown since a three-week strike six years ago.

Like many pickets, Drake has taken a second job to try to make ends meet.

“What Ikea is doing is not right,” he said. “It seems the further away you get from Sweden, the worse treatment you get.”Three labour disputes are currently simmering across B.C., according to the B.C. Federation of Labour.

The longest dispute is a lockout of 16 members of CUPE Local 389 by the North Shore Winter Club in North Vancouver.

The club locked out its CUPE workers on May 3, 2013. The union says the key issues are hours of work and benefits. Mediated talks were to begin Monday through the B.C. Labour Relations Board.

About 350 members of Teamsters Local 213 have picketed Ikea’s Richmond store since May 13.

About 200 members of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers 213 have been locked out by FortisBC since June 26.