Frank Fischer, chief executive of VW Chattanooga and manager of the
plant, emphasized on Friday night that while the workers voted
against the UAW they did not vote down the idea of a works council.
"Throughout this process, we found great enthusiasm for the idea of
an American-style works council both inside and outside our plant,"
Fischer said. "Our goal continues to be to determine the best method
for establishing a works council in accordance with the requirements
of U.S. labor law."
The power of such a council, which would be a first of its kind in
the United States, would be very limited under U.S. labor law. It
could be consulted only on some limited matters rather than
negotiate with management on working conditions. And some labor
experts say if the workers want to participate in a works council
they may have to set up their own independent union to avoid the
perception of a company-organized union, which is not allowed under
In Germany, a works council typically involves both white- and
blue-collar workers who elect representatives to participate on a
body that is involved in decisions about the workplace environment
and rules. However, wages and benefits are usually left for separate
negotiations between labor unions and management.
Chattanooga is Volkswagen's only plant in the United States. The
idea for a works council has the backing of some of the workers at
the Chattanooga plant who had opposed the UAW, and also has support
from some politicians who had been warning about the dangers of a
UAW victory. VW's works council in Germany also said it still wanted
one to be set up in Chattanooga and some of its officials would be
traveling to the United States to hold talks with labor law experts
about the possibility in the next two weeks.
Last week's vote at the plant — which was 53 percent to 47 percent
against the UAW — dealt a body blow to the union, which has been
unable to expand into auto plants in the U.S. South, even as its
ranks have declined elsewhere.
The UAW had high hopes for the vote because VW at the prodding of IG
Metall, the powerful German union that has several representatives
on VW's supervisory board, had maintained what it calls a "neutral"
stance toward the UAW and did not campaign against the union. It had
even permitted UAW representatives limited access to the plant to
If the UAW had been successful, VW planned to form a works council
with representatives from the union and representatives from
nonunion white-collar employees.
DIFFICULT LEGAL HURDLES
Labor experts said they think it will be very difficult, if not
impossible, to set up a works council without an independent union.
"While it's something novel, they are up against a statutory
framework set up to prevent this from happening," said Steve
Bernstein, an attorney at Fisher & Phillips, a national labor law
firm that represents the management side in labor issues.
[to top of second column]
Bernstein said that as long as any workforce body only "consults"
with management, they may meet U.S. labor law but if they "deal" — or negotiate — with management then that would not be allowed. "The
test is whether they are exchanging ideas and proposals with
management. If they refrain from that, you will have a committee
with diluted power, but more likely will be accepted" under U.S.
labor law, he said.
One possibility would be that the workers at the Chattanooga
plant form a new independent union themselves and then join a works
council, though under U.S. National Labor Relations Board rules they
would almost certainly have to wait until at least a year after last
week's vote. The UAW could also seek another vote after a year has
The discussions have some of those who lined up against the UAW,
both at the plant and outside, wondering if there is a new way to
worker representation that fits better with a modern America that
has moved decisively against traditional labor unions in the past 30
years. In 2013, only 11.3 percent of the American labor force was
unionized, down from 20.1 percent in 1983. The latest government
statistics show that only 6.7 percent of American workers in the
private sector are in unions.
Bob Corker, a Republican U.S. senator from Tennessee, who was
accused of interfering in the vote by the UAW for comments he made
last week, told Reuters on Saturday that there was now the
possibility of looking at workplace representation in the United
States "in a very different way."
Corker, Chattanooga's former mayor who helped lure the Volkswagen
factory to that city with substantial tax incentives, said whether a
German-style works council is allowed under U.S. law is a tough
legal question. He also said that if there was a need for a union
then the workers should organize their own.
Mike Burton, a key member of a VW Chattanooga anti-UAW worker group
called Southern Momentum, said that it wants "to create a new
business model" involving worker representation without setting up a
union. "We want to make it so that in a year when the UAW is allowed
to come back, we'll have something set up and they won't have a
chance to come in."
(Editing by Kevin Drawbaugh, Martin
Howell and Matthew Lewis)
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