For months, the UAW has been trying hard to get recognition by Volkswagen to represent workers at its prized assembly plant in Chattanooga.
The effort has unleashed a groundswell of pro- and anti-union sentiment. While some workers are eager for the UAW to come in, state officials and so-called right-to-work groups are just as determined to stop Detroits brand of unionism.
Now Volkswagen and its German labour leaders are proposing a solution that is commonplace in Europe, but has yet to be tried in the American auto industry.
The senior labour representative at Volkswagen in Germany, Bernd Osterloh, is planning a trip to the United States to suggest a compromise in what has become a heated battle over the UAWs relentless drive to organise a foreign-owned auto plant in the American South.
He is expected to push for a German-style works council in the plant a committee of hourly and salaried employees that gives labor a voice at the management table.
A works council is not like an American union, which can negotiate contracts and authorise strikes. But it does have the advantage of being a familiar form of labour relations for a German car company like VW.
The larger question is whether a works council can satisfy employees and politicians in Tennessee and give the UAW a foothold in the growing Southern auto industry.
Osterloh said recently that the Chattanooga plant might have a better chance at landing a hot new sport utility vehicle for the assembly plant, which now produces Passat sedans, if it had a works council to represent it.
In Germany, works councils have a long tradition and are an integral part of the process of mitbestimmung the right of workers to have a say in corporate decisions. Managers in Germany see the councils as a way to head off labour problems and improve productivity.
To many Americans, the notion of works councils belongs alongside socialized medicine and six-week vacations as examples of the practices that have doomed Europe to near-zero growth. But another way to look at it is that works councils are part of a model that has helped preserve Germanys industrial base and hold the countrys unemployment to a relatively low level: 5.2%, compared with 7.3% in the US.