U.S. Sen. Bob Corker said Monday he's looking "very closely" at legislation that could permit companies such as Volkswagen to create works council-type labor boards for employees without a union.
"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," the Tennessee Republican said in Chattanooga. "I'm not going to commit to it, but we may introduce legislation to that end."
However, a top United Auto Workers official said that company-sponsored employee committees without a union are unlawful "for a good reason" as they're aimed 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."
The battle over unionizing VW's Chattanooga plant has drawn attention in Washington, D.C., where the works council concept was raised in testimony before a congressional panel just 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" that would give a work force more of an on-the-job voice.
Heritage analyst Rachel Greszler told the Joint Economic Committee of Congress that federal law prohibits formal employee-employer communication over working conditions outside of collective bargaining.
"Federal law denies workers who do not want union representation a formal voice on the job, as the recent vote at Volkswagen demonstrated," she said in testimony, which she called her own and not an official Heritage Foundation position.
Greszler said VW wanted a works council to expand its employees' voice in corporate governance, but noted that workers turned back the union.
"It is hard for workers to feel empowered or to have control over their jobs if they can only approach their employer with a union representative present and if their concerns can only be addressed through a collective bargaining process," she said.
VW workers voted down the UAW by a 712 to 626 margin. 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.
Corker, who was in the city Monday to speak to small-business people, said U.S. law differs from legislation in other countries in regard to such labor boards.
He 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.
But 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.
He said workers at plants run by the Detroit 3 automakers, through union-negotiated joint committees, share decision-making on matters such as quality, health and safety, production standards and employee-benefit programs.
"These UAW programs are successful examples of the German co-determination model at work in America," said Casteel, who oversaw the union's organizing effort at VW's Chattanooga plant.
He said the German system is one in which works councils and trade unions work side by side to advance worker representation and "real workplace democracy."
Greszler, who testified before the congressional panel chaired by U.S. Rep. Kevin Brady, R-Texas, and co-chaired by U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., said polls show that 60 percent of workers would prefer employee-involvement programs over labor unions or government regulations to improve working conditions.
"Yet, under the National Labor Relations Act, most E-I programs are illegal unless they are run by an outside union," she said.
But, Gary Moore, president of the Tennessee AFL-CIO, downplayed such polls. He said having collective bargaining eliminates "the fear factor" an employee may have in talks about working conditions with their boss and worrying about retaliation.
"If I belong to a union or a works council, without feeling threatened, I'll go in and more freely talk to a union representative and share concerns about safety issues," Moore said.
He said companies say they have open-door policies, but employees don't feel comfortable and won't say what they really think.
"But if they have a buffer, they can talk freely," Moore said.
Greszler called on Congress to remove the law's prohibition of such employee-involvement programs.
She said the prohibition especially hurts women. The analyst said women are more likely to have individual needs and circumstances that could be easily accommodated through mutual negotiations with the employer.
"Universal policies, as negotiated by unions, are unlikely to meet the needs of women who often require greater flexibility in the workplace than men," Greszler said.
Contact Mike Pare at email@example.com or 423-757-6318.