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Volkswagen in America

April 30,  2024  |  727 words  |  Economics, Philosophy

Auto workers at a Volkswagen assembly plant in Chattanooga, Tennessee voted to join a union this month, after similar attempts to unionize at that same plant failed to gain the necessary majorities in 2014 and 2019.  

This time around the rank-and-file may have been inspired by last year’s successful strikes at Detroit’s Big Three automakers (General Motors, Ford, and Stellantis), when the United Auto Workers (UAW) secured substantial  raises, thousands of new jobs, and bonuses for retirees.

Oddly enough, Republican Governor Bill Lee of Tennessee had strongly opposed this effort.  In the run-up to the union vote he cautioned such a change might jeopardize jobs.  In the aftermath of the election Mr. Lee was quoted as saying he thought the Chattanooga workers “made a mistake.”  Since multiple Southern states have incentivized automakers to relocate outside of Detroit to avoid the UAW, I guess Governor Lee is worried this vote will prompt Volkswagen to consider leaving Tennessee for a neighboring, still-non-union state.

For the UAW, this victory could represent a major turning point in its efforts to represent more of the auto-making workforce in our Southern states.  It now turns its attention to another German auto manufacturing plant, a  Mercedes factory in Vance, Alabama, that is expected to hold a union vote in a few weeks.  

The Volkswagen location in Tennessee was a logical starting point for a broader UAW organizing effort across the South, since as a German-based company Volkswagen is used to giving its workers more of a say in the overall operation of the company.  In fact, German law prescribes that worker representatives must maintain up to half the seats on the supervisory boards of large corporations.

This is a fundamental component of what is known as a “works council.”  Such councils now exist throughout Europe, with different names and in a variety of related forms.  But the oldest and arguably most successful version of a works council can be found in Germany, with its origins dating back to the early 1920s during the post-WWI Weimar Republic.

“Worker representation” sounds like what a union does.  But while a works council is a shop-floor organization representing workers, it is meant to function as a compliment to, or even independent of, a trade union.

In Germany, a works council is comprised of a group of elected employees who collaborate with management to help reduce workplace conflict, increase the bargaining power of employees, correct market failures through public policy, and provide workers more say in key decisions within the company.

Such a council ensures all laws, rules, and health provisions benefit the company’s workforce and are applied correctly.  Yes, it naturally advocates for the employees’ best interest, but it does so through established dialogue with management.  Both the works council and the employer agree on the contractual provisions for wages and working conditions that are binding on all employees.

And get this:  A works council is mandatory in Germany for companies with five or more full-time employees.  But works councils only form at the request of employees, so companies can operate without a works council until the workforce formally requests one.

While I hope the UAW’s next organizing effort at a Mercedes factory in Alabama proves to be successful, even more valuable would be the introduction of the works council concept at these auto plants.

It has already happened, at least in a nascent form, for fast-food workers in California.  The FAST Recovery Act, signed into law in 2022,  established a fast-food council that will be made up of workers and corporate representatives from the industry that will hash out standards for wages, benefits, and other working conditions.

This new council gets close to the European model in one important respect: sectorial bargaining.  Under such a model, employees and employers across an industry negotiate conditions all at once, instead of company-by-company, or location-by-location, as currently dictated by U.S. labor law.

Giving workers a voice that allows them to bargain as a unit, as unionization does, is a good thing.  An even better thing would be figuring out how to move away from the often-lethal us-versus-them mentality that descends on too many contract negotiations, once a workforce does go union.  With a goodwill commitment from both sides in the fight, the works council might help American industry find the sweet spot and discover a modicum of much-needed labor-management cooperation.

Robert J. Cavanaugh, Jr.

www.robertjcavanaughjr.com

bobcavjr@gmail.com

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