In the aftermath of the union recognition vote at Volkswagen in Chattanooga, much debate has focused on the intervention of politicians when workers want the right to decide freely on whether to form a union and on the future of a works council model. As an American, born and raised in the United States, but having lived a greater part of my adult life in the home country of Volkswagen — Germany — I would like to add a “German” perspective to the post-election analysis.
After WWII, conservatives and liberals in West Germany, backed by the U.S. and British governments, joined in a common cause to build a new democracy amidst the destruction wrought by the Nazis. One of the cornerstones of the new constitution was the right to freedom of association, which the Nazis had abolished in 1933. Under this umbrella of democratic advocacy a vibrant union movement developed — in contrast to East Germany, where workers were being robbed of an organized voice.
Nearly 20 years later, I would see first-hand the difference it made having union rights in West Germany rather than no union rights in East Germany. In college in the U.S., I majored in history, primarily European and German history. When I accepted a position at the Free University of Berlin in 1973 to teach political science, Germany was still divided and the differences between the economic rebound in West Germany and the stagnant East German economy were evident. West Germany already had a reputation for dynamic growth and, curiously enough to my American eyes, stable labor relations. Labor and management displayed a knack for negotiating solutions to labor-management issues. Issues were not always easily resolved, but there was always a culture of dialogue.
In the 50 years since then, the German model of labor relations — a dual system of legally-mandated workplace representation and industrywide collective bargaining — has been a major ingredient of German economic success.
Why did this work so well in Germany? And why has this kind of partnership and controlled conflict become so accepted? While U.S. labor relations were steadily deteriorating, Germany was strengthening its industrial basis and improving on a labor relations model that has contributed to its success. Indeed, it is broadly recognized in Germany today that the right to join a union, as anchored in the constitution, has been one of the key factors of the country’s economic success. And in recognition of this fact, both employers and unions have repeatedly defended this right together with the autonomy of collective bargaining from political intervention.
There is a second factor of equal importance: legislated co-determination. The law established a framework for negotiating labor-management differences, but in practice, its real effectiveness evolved from the union representatives on the works councils. Workers quickly realized that without union backing, their representatives would be at a disadvantage in negotiations with management.
My message: Take a lesson from Germany and don’t let politicians meddle in the rights of workers to a fair election and to exercise their rights to choose union representation. Germany has heeded that lesson with great success. There is clearly a difference between the right to criticize unions and using a position of power or alleged inside information to connect job loss with unionization. Secondly, works councils have been a boon to the German economy — but not as a stand-alone invention. At Volkswagen, the works council has the backing of a workforce with over 90 percent membership in its union, the IG Metall. Without union backing and support, works councils are largely powerless.
Dr. Michael Fichter is a former lecturer and administrative director of the Center for Labor Relations at the Free University of Berlin.