Representatives of the UAW and Volkswagen recently met in Wolfsburg, Germany to discuss the procedures for setting up a works council at the VW plant in Chattanooga, Tennessee. Before a works council could be established, workers at the plant will have to be unionized to avoid conflict with US labor law.
Bob King, UAW president in a statement about the meeting said that the two sides are trying to find a way to implement a German-style works council at the Chattanooga plant and for Volkswagen to recognize an ongoing UAW presence at the plant.
The Chattanooga plant, where 2,000 workers make VW Passats, is the only Volkswagen plant in its worldwide operations that doesn’t have a works council.
“VW workers in Chattanooga have the unique opportunity to introduce this new model of labor relations to the United States, in partnership with the UAW,” said King. “Such a labor relations model would give workers the job security that would accompany their having an integral role in managing the company and a vehicle to provide input on workplace improvements that will contribute to the company’s success.”
King said that discussion between the UAW and Volkswagen will continue.
Works councils were established in Germany back in the 1920s.
They are elected bodies whose purpose is to give rank and file workers a voice in management decisions that affect workers’ jobs.
In Germany, works councils have access to information that affect staffing and other management decisions. They also play a role in designing the workplace environment and processes, consulting on hiring and firing decisions, and a host of other decisions that in the US are considered management prerogatives.
Thomas Geoghegan writing in Harper’s, says that works councils have helped maintain Germany’s manufacturing base, the engine for creating and providing good paying jobs to all sectors of the German population, and have helped Germany maintain its competitive edge, which makes Germany a leading exporter and one of the world’s largest economies.
Works councils haven’t hurt Volkswagen’s ability to grow and prosper.
According to Forbes, the biggest, most powerful company in the auto industry is Volkswagen. “The German manufacturer has the highest revenues, profits, and assets of any automaker. Its market value is second only to Toyota,” reads a recent Forbes article.
German works councils, according to research done by economists John T. Addison, Paulino Teixera, and Thomas Zwick, “are in general associated with higher earnings” for all workers, but especially for women and other workers who may have faced discrimination in the past.
But works councils are not without their detractors.
Some on the left argue–and with some merit–that works councils are a tool that management uses to control and pacify workers and that the councils are susceptible to management’s manipulation.
But should the UAW succeed in bringing a works council to the Tennessee plant, it would enhance its organizing campaign in the South. BMW and Mercedes, which both have works councils in Germany and plants in the US South, would be under new pressure to make a similar deal with the UAW.
The impact that such a deal between Volkswagen and the UAW could have on southern labor is not lost on anti-union people both in the South and the rest of the US.
One of the biggest opponents to a works council agreement between the UAW and Volkswagen is the Competitive Enterprise Institute, a right-wing advocacy and policy group that operates out of Washington DC.
The Detroit Free Press reports that Matt Patterson of CEI has made several trips to Tennessee to urge state and local officials to oppose works councils at the Chattanooga plant.
Tennessee Governor Bill Haslan opposes the establishment of work councils because he fears that they might undermine Tennessee’s low wage economy, which Gov. Haslan describes as a competitive advantage for attracting new business to the state.
Both the UAW’s King and Volkswagen management in Tennessee agree that the ultimate decision on whether to establish a works council in Tennessee will be up to the workers.
Volkswagen’s management said so in a recent letter to employees, and King made this point in his statement on the meetings between the company and the union.
“The UAW appreciates the opportunity to have direct discussions with VW management,” said King. “Ultimately, however, it’s the workers in Chattanooga who will make the decision on (UAW) representation and a works council.”