President Barack Obama's labor secretary plans to travel next week to Germany to meet with Volkswagen officials to learn more about the works council the company wants to start at the Chattanooga factory.
"I believe we need to import this model to the United States, and I'm confident that we will," said U.S. Secretary of Labor Thomas Perez in a speech to the National Press Club on Monday.
In his speech in Washington D.C., Perez cited VW's Chattanooga assembly plant, where the automaker earlier this year sought a National Labor Relations Board election on United Auto Workers recognition. VW officials said U.S. labor law requires a union to set up a works council, but the UAW lost the election by a 53 percent to 47 percent margin.
This summer, the UAW formed a nondues-paying local in Chattanooga to try to sign up enough members that VW will recognize it without an election.
Perez said there needs to be more space in America for new forms of collaboration between workers and employers.
"The widespread use of works councils in Germany is a great example," he said.
A works council may include blue- and white-collar employees who oversee day-to-day operations at a plant such as schedules, safety and training.
Chattanooga VW employee Mike Cantrell, elected the local's president earlier this month, said he likes the idea of Perez traveling to Germany to check out works councils.
"Anybody involved to help move labor along and to have a voice for the worker, I favor," he said.
But while Perez' speech was a full support of organized labor in the U.S., others who don't necessarily endorse the UAW have expressed an interest in works councils as well.
U.S. Sen. Bob Corker said this summer he's looking "very closely" at legislation that could permit companies such as VW to create works councils 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. "I'm not going to commit to it, but we may introduce legislation to that end."
Corker said that what happens in relation to the UAW is up to the Chattanooga VW plant's workers. But he asserted that momentum by the UAW in the state would have a negative effect on Tennessee's business recruitment efforts.
"I hope for the good of our state and the auto industry in the state ... that the UAW does not represent them," he said. "I hope that with every cell of my body."
A senior policy analyst for the Heritage Foundation told the Joint Economic Committee of Congress earlier this year that labor law needs 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.
The analyst, Rachel Greszler, said that while VW wanted a works council to expand its employees' voice in corporate governance, the workers turned down 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.
That being said, some UAW opponents who work at the VW plant are trying to sign up members to form their own independent union under the American Council of Employees banner, and they too have expressed support for a works council.
"We haven't given up this fight in any way," said Mike Burton, a VW employee who supports ACE.
Perez said works councils establish a collaborative process for workplace decision-making.
"They're elected by all workers, including both managers and front-line employees," he said. "They're considered critical partners in a company's operations."
Contact Mike Pare at firstname.lastname@example.org or 423-757-6318.