published Friday, April 5th, 2013

Volkswagen's Chattanooga factory at center of labor fray

A Volkswagen assembly line employee works beneath a new Passat.
A Volkswagen assembly line employee works beneath a new Passat.
Photo by Tim Barber.

A national right to work group has joined the fray over whether Volkswagen's Chattanooga plant should set up a works council labor board and give the United Auto Workers a foothold.

The National Right to Work Legal Defense Foundation has reached out to VW workers on Facebook, offering free legal aid if they're feeling pressured to join the UAW.

"What we see in Chattanooga is a little bit concerning," said Mark Mix, the Springfield, Va.-based group's president.

The union declined to comment, citing UAW's President Bob King's earlier statement that the organization is "very interested in, and has great respect for, the German system of co-determination where the company has strong collaboration with management, unions and works councils."

The foundation's action is the latest development over labor organizing activities concerning the plant since VW said last month it is talking with the UAW about the works council idea.

VW's board member in charge of human resources said the automaker may release a plan for the European-type works council in May or June. Formal talks with the union could begin as soon as the second half of the year, the company said.

If employees at the VW plant choose a works council labor board, it will break new ground in U.S. worker-management relations, some labor and legal experts said.

"You'd have to look at it as an experiment," said Lowell Turner, professor of international and comparative labor at Cornell University. "It would be something quite new and potentially promising."

University of Texas law professor Julius Getman termed it "path-breaking."

"The UAW is used to a more traditional U.S. style dominated by the union," he said. "With a works council, you have this separate entity the dilutes the union power to some extent."

Works councils would represent employees in discussions with the company about such issues as pay and employee working conditions.

European model

Turner said most European countries have works councils mandated by law and a dual system of representation.

"One is a union negotiating with the company and the other is a works council elected inside the workforce," he said.

Getman said that if VW as a company tried to set up a works council in the United States, that would violate a federal law prohibiting management from establishing a labor organization.

Employees must set up the works council, he said, and "they'd need the union for this."

A works council may represent everybody at the plant, even white-collar employees, Turner said.

"It's a separate body," apart from the union, he said.

Turner said the union would need to win a majority vote of VW employees. That could be done through a National Labor Relations Board-certified election, or just by a majority of workers choosing the arrangement, he said.

But Mix said he's concerned that VW workers wouldn't be permitted a secret-ballot vote, but that the UAW will seek to have a majority of workers simply sign cards asking VW to accept the labor group.

He said the UAW may ask VW for the names and addresses of all the employees and could go to their houses or call them seeking signatures.

Also, Mix said, the UAW may ask for permission for the union to talk with employees at the plant, and that VW remain neutral as the union solicits workers.

"In our minds, that's potentially not in the best interest of employees," he said.

Mix said employees who feel pressured can request free legal aid from the foundation by calling or going to its website.

Volkswagen employees

Some Volkswagen plant employees said this week they need more information about a works council and the UAW.

"I'd need to know more about how it works," said Alex Fernandez, who has worked at the plant for about three months.

Still, he said, the pay and benefits at the plant are good "and I'm not sure [the union] is needed."

The works council concept is seen as helping the UAW get a foothold at a so-called transplant automaker, or a plant run by a foreign carmaker in the South.

"It has been a major goal [by the UAW] to organize the transplants," Getman said. "It would be a major victory for the union."

At the same time, he said, the arrangement could dilute the UAW's power.

"How much power they'd give up is not clear," Getman said.

In Germany, where works councils are prevalent, unions largely control the labor boards even though they're independent of the unions, he said.

The Chattanooga plant is the only major Volkswagen facility that does not have a works council, VW spokesman Guenther Scherelis said.

Joe Atkins, who teaches journalism at the University of Mississippi and has written extensively on labor issues, said the UAW has carved out a game plan in which some top union people believe the union and VW can work in a nonhostile relationship.

"This doesn't set up the hostility that seems to be present" in typical union-management relationships at U.S. auto companies, he said. "How that would resonate in the rest of the South? We don't know."

In the UAW's new principles for organizing, the union says that global competition in the automotive market has changed the way it operates and the union "no longer presumes an adversarial work environment with strict work rules" or narrow job classifications.

"The UAW of the 21st century inhabits a global economy, therefore, the union must be fundamentally and radically different from the UAW of the 20th century," the union says in its "Principles for Fair Union Elections."

"In order to promote the success of our employers, the UAW is committed to innovation, flexibility, lean manufacturing, world best quality and continuous cost improvement. Through teamwork and creative problem solving, we are building relationships with employers based upon a foundation of respect, shared goals and common mission."

Atkins, who has closely followed UAW organizing efforts at Nissan's plant in Canton, Miss., said the union is gaining momentum there. But, he said, he doesn't think the UAW would want an election tomorrow.

Contact staff writer Mike Pare at mpare@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6318.

about Mike Pare...

Mike Pare, the deputy Business editor at the Chattanooga Times Free Press, has worked at the paper for 27 years. In addition to editing, Mike also writes Business stories and covers Volkswagen, economic development and manufacturing in Chattanooga and the surrounding area. In the past he also has covered higher education. Mike, a native of Fort Lauderdale, Fla., received a bachelor’s degree in communications from Florida Atlantic University. he worked at the Rome News-Tribune before ...

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