VW union, yea or nay? Ex-NLRB member says UAW not needed in Chattanooga for works council

photo Factory workers perform diagnostics on a Passat in the assembly section of the Chattanooga Volkswagen plant in this file photo.

A former National Labor Relations Board member says Volkswagen's Chattanooga employees can achieve all that a German-style labor board is set up to do without having to join a union.

"Discussions over productivity, workplace safety, working conditions, we can have those discussions," said John Raudabaugh, who is now a labor law professor at Ave Maria School of Law in Naples, Fla.

Raudabaugh, an NLRB member from 1990 to 1993 who later practiced in the Washington, D.C., office of the Nixon Peabody law firm, said VW employees and the company can "reach a win-win outcome without having to pay a third party" such as the United Auto Workers.

However, a UAW official took issue with Raudabaugh, saying it is "universally recognized that you can't have a German-style effective works council system without a union to negotiate it."

Gary Casteel, a UAW regional director in Lebanon, Tenn., said there is "no way under U.S. labor law" to set up such a labor board that could deal with substantive matters or have authority such as a union with the power to negotiate.

A works council, which could represent blue- and white-collar employees of a plant over issues such as hours or working conditions, is envisioned by the UAW in Chattanooga. VW's Chattanooga plant could become the first auto factory in the U.S. to have such a German-style works council arrangement.

Raudabaugh said the NLRB prohibits situations where employees and management engage in back and forth discussions to specifically reach a mutual agreement on wages and work conditions. But, he said, companies don't need unions to talk to employees.

"They can meet for free without paying a union," said Raudabaugh, who was appointed to the NLRB by former President George H.W. Bush. "Employees should focus on using their money for their personal purposes."

He said he believes the UAW is "desperately seeking some new image, some new approach to selling themselves. At the end of the day...a labor union is a labor union is a labor union."

Raudabaugh also urged VW officials to respect U.S. laws and "try to fit in rather than stand out" as it pertains to the establishment of a German-style works council, which some associated with the automaker have said they would like to see.

"In this situation, I encourage VW to conform and modify its outreach," said Raudabaugh, who has also taught as an adjunct professor of labor law at Northwestern University Law School, University of Chicago Law School and Emory University Law School.

He said he respects VW as a German company that's a leader in establishing works councils to enhance employee relations and productivity.

"But when they operate in the U.S., they need to respect the laws of different nation-states," Raudabaugh said.

Casteel, meanwhile, said people on the NLRB have different views on issues.

"There's different perspectives and conservative appointees and liberal appointees," he said.

But Casteel insisted that U.S. labor law calls for a union if there's a German-style works council system.

Works councils are operating in all of VW's plants worldwide, except in Chattanooga, according to the company.

Horst Neumann, VW's board member in charge of human resources, has said the automaker and the UAW are in talks about setting up a German-style labor board at the plant that produces the Passat sedan. VW officials at the plant say that the decision is up to the employees.

But, state and local officials have weighed in. Both Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam and U.S. Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tenn., said they're not in favor of the UAW organizing the plant.

"I would hate for anything to happen that would hurt the productivity of the plant or to deter investment in Chattanooga," Haslam said in a statement, adding it's ultimately a decision for VW and its workers.

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

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