News of Volkswagen being open to establishing a works council at its plant in Chattanooga are widely interpreted as the UAW getting a long-sought nose under the southern tent. It could also be a shrewd move to block the union.
First, the facts: Horst Neumann, VW’s board member in charge of human resources, told reporters on Friday that Volkswagen was “in talks with the UAW about setting up a German-style labor board at the Tennessee plant,” Reuters says. IAW President Bob King is all in favor and said that “the UAW is very interested in the specific model that VW wants to present in the months ahead, and we are looking forward to open, fair and respectful dialogue.” Little else is known.
Now, for some background:
- A works council or labor board is not a union. It is a German construct, and acts as the representation of the employees. Members of the works council are elected by the employees. The works council has rights provided by German law.
- Horst Neumann is a member of the German Metal Worker Union IG Metall. The HR-Chief or “Arbeitsdirektor” of a large German company represents the workers and usually the unions on the Board of Management.
- Works councils of large German automakers have spread to Europe, and it is known that they want to spread globally.
- Workers at Volkswagen Chattanooga usually are opposed to the UAW. Reuters cites a meeting of March last year, where a worker, addressing the crowd in a meeting, said the plant did not need a union, which was met with loud applause and cheers. However, it is also known that workers in Chattanooga would like to have a works council just like in Germany.
Establishing a German-style works council in the U.S. without the protection of German labor laws would basically turn it into a lobbying group of the workers. It does not necessarily mean that the UAW can run or even co-opt it. Neumann already said that the UAW is not the only option.
Harley Shaiken, a University of California-Berkeley labor studies professor, said that such an agreement could spread to Japanese and South Korean-owned U.S. plants.
Establishing works councils could also be a blocking move: If workers have their elected representation, they will even less need a union.