Volkswagens US plant opens door to union and dispute

Written by New York Times | Frankfurt | Updated: Oct 12 2013, 08:01am hrs
The face-off between Volkswagen and the United Automobile Workers over organising the companys new plant in Tennessee is rapidly becoming a global clash of cultures.

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.