Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam likes non-union works council bill idea

Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam likes non-union works council bill idea

July 9th, 2014 by Ben Benton in Business Around the Region

Volkswagen workers and Passats are seen at the Chattanooga manufacturing plant .

Photo by John Rawlston /Times Free Press.

POLL: Should the government allow work councils?

Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam

Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam

Photo by Associated Press /Times Free Press.

DUNLAP, Tenn. - Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam said Tuesday that potential federal legislation legalizing works council-type labor boards in the U.S. without a union could benefit Chattanooga's Volkswagen plant.

The governor also said the state continues to have "very fruitful discussions" with VW officials over an incentive package that may lead to the company adding a new sport utility vehicle line to the automaker's factory.

Haslam, who unveiled several infrastructure grants, said U.S. Sen. Bob Corker is "onto something" when the state's junior senator noted Monday he's eyeing a bill permitting companies to create labor boards or employee-involvement programs giving workers more of a voice in workplace issues.

"I think what you heard out of the vote down there is workers saying we want to have a works council, we're just not certain we want to be represented by the UAW," said Haslam. In a February election at the VW plant, workers turned down affiliating with the United Auto Workers.

Haslam said Corker, R-Tenn., "is pursuing something that would be beneficial to the company and that's what the company has said they want, too, by the way."

But, the Republican governor added that changing the existing law calls for passing a bill "which not something that's easy to do these days."

Corker has said he's looking "very closely" at the legislation.

"We're not ready to introduce it, but we've looked at ways for employees to have the ability to be involved in companies in that way," he said Monday in Chattanooga. "I'm not going to commit to it, but we may introduce legislation to that end."

Bob Corker

Bob Corker

Photo by Associated Press /Times Free Press.

Corker said a bill was introduced in Congress in the mid-1990s, and he has looked at ways of improving that legislation.

"We've been going through all the details to see what might work," the former Chattanooga mayor said.

However, a top UAW official said that company-sponsored employee committees without a union are unlawful "for a good reason" as they're directed as "a tool commonly used to avoid independent worker representation."

"Company-sponsored employee committees don't give workers a free voice in the workplace," said Gary Casteel, the UAW's new secretary-treasurer. "Workers that participate in these organizations inevitably fear retaliation if they disagree with the employer. That's not what true democracy is about."

Casteel said in an email that worker committees operated in conjunction with free and independent unions can provide workers with a strong voice for shared decision-making.

A works council, a panel that can include both blue- and white-collar employees to discuss day-t0-day workplace conditions, would have been set up at the plant had the union been approved, VW has said. The automaker has works councils at nearly all its major factories worldwide.

Last month, a senior policy analyst for the Heritage Foundation called for a change in U.S. labor law to permit more formal two-way communication between workers and employers, citing "employee-involvement programs."

Meanwhile, Corker on Monday, too, was upbeat about the city's chances to land the SUV project, that could bring upwards of a thousand new jobs and hundreds of millions of dollars in new investment to the plant now producing the Passat sedan.

Gary Casteel

Gary Casteel

Photo by Associated Press /Times Free Press.

"I still believe at the end of the day the same things as during the election," he said. "We're going to be successful."

In February, during the union vote, Corker said in a statement that "I've had conversations today and based on those am assured that should the workers vote against the UAW, Volkswagen will announce in the coming weeks that it will manufacture its new mid-size SUV here in Chattanooga."

In addition, Haslam on Tuesday said that a shortage in the Highway Trust Fund is "a real issue."

"Right now, we're not collecting the money we need to keep America's infrastructure (to the standards) people expect it to be. People expect smooth, safe roads," he said.

Corker recently proposed a 12-cent gas tax hike over two years, raising the current 18.4 cent-per-gallon gas tax and 24.4 cent-per-gallon tax on diesel. Corker has called for offsetting the fuel tax increases with other tax cuts.

Staff writer Mike Pare contributed to this story.

Contact Ben Benton at 423-757-6569 or bbenton@timesfreepress.com.