'Micro-union' eyed by some Volkswagen plant workers

'Micro-union' eyed by some Volkswagen plant workers

February 16th, 2014 by Mike Pare in Local Regional News

Workers assemble Volkswagen Passat sedans at the German automaker's plant in Chattanooga.

Photo by Associated Press/Times Free Press.

POLL: Should VW workers form a micro-union?

Fresh from beating back a United Auto Workers bid to organize Volkswagen's Chattanooga plant, some workers are eyeing the possibility of what one termed "a micro-union" in the factory.

"That's a good possibility," said anti-UAW employee Ronnie Shaver about such an organized unit within the plant. "You could have a works council, too. That would benefit everybody."

U.S. Sen. Bob Corker also addressed the idea of some sort of employee bargaining group, minus the UAW, on Saturday in a news conference held hours after the union vote failed 712 to 626, or 53 percent to 47 percent.

"If you really believe you need to have a labor union, why don't you organize your own?" Corker said. "There's all kinds of ways going forward. We've never opposed the concept of a works council. It's the company's decision, not mine."

The Tennessee Republican said the UAW was interested only in union dues, and he discounted changes at the UAW to embrace a more collaborative worker-management relationship.

"To the UAW, it was about money," Corker said. "To us, it's about our community."

The works council labor board, which can include both blue- and white-collar employees, was a key issue for VW. The company said it has such a panel, which examines day-to-day issues such as training, safety and hours, at nearly every major plant it operates around the world.

But VW has said the company would run afoul of U.S. labor law if it set up a works council without a union that would bargain over wages and benefits.

Frank Fischer, who heads VW's operations in Chattanooga, said after the vote that the decision wasn't a rejection of the works council concept.

"Throughout this process, we found great enthusiasm for the idea of an American-style works council both inside and outside our plant," he said in a statement.

Mike Burton, a VW employee who worked against the UAW, said after the vote results were unveiled that there are different ways for employees to be represented to management.

"But you don't need the UAW and $600 a year in dues," he said.

However, Jack Nerad, executive market analyst for Kelley Blue Book, said he thinks the formation of a union other than the UAW is "fairly unlikely."

Nerad said he saw only two scenarios going forward for VW workers -- no union or UAW affiliation.

Under the election agreement between the UAW and VW, about 1,500 of the 2,700 plant employees were included in the vote. That group included all full-time and regular part-time production and maintenance employees.

It's not known how many of those, many of whom are pro-UAW, would be interested in a micro-union. Also, it's unclear if other employees could, or would want to be, included as well.

But what is clear is that VW likes its plants to operate under the works council setup.

Dr. Lowell Turner, who directs the Worker Institute at Cornell University and has studied works councils in Germany, said VW has closer relationships between works councils and management than any large company in that nation.

"They've translated this into a global VW culture," he said. "This works council model is successful in Germany."

Gunnar Kilian, general secretary of the Volkswagen Group works council, said in Chattanooga last week that such entities are a key part of VW's successful business model.

"We believe an American works council in Chattanooga will contribute to the creation of more jobs, more economic growth for the region, and more success for Volkswagen in the U.S. market," he said. "The only question is whether the workforce here would like to be represented in this fashion. It's up to our colleagues."

Corker said his concerns related to the UAW, not labor unions in general.

"It is the UAW that has been such a job-destroying entity," Corker said. "They have created a culture within their plants that is nothing like the culture you will find today at Volkswagen."

Corker, who said he has developed a relationship with VW executives since working to recruit the company to Chattanooga in 2008, said the company "is more than willing to deal with this in another way" to create a works council in Chattanooga.

Although VW and the UAW insist a works council cannot be created without labor union representation in the U.S., Corker said there are questions about whether and what type of a union is required.

"There is a big legal debate about whether you can do a German-style works council under U.S. law," Corker said. "Some people say you can only do it with a works council and some say you can only do it without a union. There are legal opinions on both sides of the issue."

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