The United Auto Workers (UAW), once one of America's most powerful unions, has seen its fortunes sag of late. Membership has dropped to less than 400,000 - down 75 percent from its 1979 peak; the union's assets have fallen by more than 10 percent in the last decade; it has agreed to reduced wages for its members; and it is considering a significant hike in monthly dues to keep up with a rising tide of financial liabilities.
Given these challenges, the UAW has pulled out all the stops to organize foreign-owned automotive factories in the southern United States. These factories employ thousands of Americans, but none carry a union card - or pay union dues. UAW President Bob King has said that he simply doesn't see a future for his union if he can't bring these workers into the fold.
The UAW's highest-profile target in this campaign is the Volkswagen plant here. VW's Chattanooga plant employs more than 1,500 production workers, meaning millions of dollars in dues for the UAW if they are successful in unionizing this facility later this week. However, many workers seem wary of the UAW. Fairly or unfairly, the union has taken a significant share of blame for job losses in places like Detroit, and workers in the South are understandably concerned about a repeat performance. To overcome this skepticism, the UAW has hit on a new messaging strategy: a works council.
Works councils are a long-standing feature of European labor law. They facilitate "co-determination" in the operations of the workplace and allow for non-confrontational discussions on issues like scheduling and safety measures. The UAW has been pitching a works council as something of a serene halfway house between traditional - and adversarial - collective bargaining and having no union representation at all.
However, as the UAW surely knows, a works council would almost certainly violate the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA). Under the NLRA, it is illegal for an employer to "dominate or interfere" with the formation or administration of a labor organization or to "contribute financial or other support" to such an entity. If a works council is considered a "labor organization" under the NLRA (and the definition in the statute is extremely broad) almost any employer interaction with it could be considered "interference" or the provision of "other support." For example, formal recognition by VW of a works council, the establishment of ground rules regarding management-council communications, or management's scheduling or accommodation of council meetings could easily meet the threshold.
The UAW has suggested that a works council would be legal if workers are allowed to choose the union as their exclusive bargaining representative in this week's election. Perhaps, but once the UAW wins an election the relationship between the union, workers, and management would be no different than what exists in any other UAW-represented plant. The supposed works council would be nothing more than a label, and far from being a half-way house, the council would simply be an extension of the union itself.
A works council might have been legal if legislation debated in the mid-1990s known as the Teamwork for Employees and Managers (TEAM) Act had become law. The TEAM Act would have amended the NLRA to allow employers in nonunion workplaces to establish a broad range of organizations empowered to address matters of mutual interest to employers and workers, such as wages, hours, and working conditions. Organized labor was, ironically, one of the bill's strongest opponents.
As it stands, the UAW's promotion of a works council is little more than a smokescreen to facilitate full-scale unionization at VW. This may or may not be what workers want, but at least the UAW should be honest about its own desires.
Glenn Spencer is vice president of the Workforce Freedom Initiative at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. Visit www.workforcefreedom.com to learn more.