Latest Solidarity Issue

Forging the American way at auto plants

By Bob King

On Feb. 12-14, Volkswagen workers in Chattanooga, Tenn., will vote in an election that could drastically change the future of U.S. labor-management relations. VW workers will be deciding whether to join the UAW and establish the country's first works council.

With growing concerns about health care, workplace safety and temporary, low-wage jobs, there is no doubt that the American work force wants to see a change in 2014. The question is whether we will address our challenges collaboratively.

U.S. unions and companies have a history of working against each other, but cooperation has long been the German way. In Germany, work councils are a unique model of collaboration between workers and employers that simply doesn't exist in the U.S. yet. Works councils and the German system of co-determination demonstrate how company management and a strong union can partner and thrive.

For example, the German metalworkers union, IG Metall, represents 2.2 million workers. Not only has the union achieved excellent wages and benefits for its members, it has also worked with Volkswagen to set high standards for quality and profitability. Beyond the interests of the company and workers, German labor relations have fueled the economy. The New York Times reported, "Works councils are part of a model that has helped preserve Germany's industrial base and hold the country's unemployment to a relatively low level: 5.2 percent, compared with 7.3 percent in the United States."

Volkswagen values the collaboration it has with its workers, their unions and works councils, and credits those relationships with much of its success. Unlike many employers in the U.S. who fight fiercely when workers organize, Volkswagen has taken the courageous position of letting workers in Chattanooga decide for themselves.

When the UAW began making progress and declared a majority of worker support for the union, outside special interests swarmed Chattanooga to run a scare campaign aimed at swaying Volkswagen workers' support for the union.

Unions have long been a ladder to the middle class and the UAW and the domestic automakers have helped fuel the nation's economic recovery through collective bargaining agreements that created tens of thousands of jobs in communities across the country. For example, when the plant in Spring Hill, Tenn., closed as part of GM's bankruptcy, the UAW stepped in to negotiate the reopening of the plant. The agreement resulted in a $350 million investment in the state.

Unfortunately, some politicians and special interest groups choose to ignore the success a union has already brought to Tennessee and other states. Their attack campaign is a direct attack on the right to organize. The decision to have a works council and to choose representation belongs to the workers.

There is an exciting opportunity to set a new standard for innovative labor-management relationships in the U.S. that benefit the company, the entire work force, shareholders and the community in general. If we place value in our society on democracy and fairness in the workplace, we must value those employers that allow workers to choose representation in a free and fair environment, and condemn politicians that step in the way.

Bob King is president of the UAW. This opinion piece originally appaeared in the Feb. 4, 2014 edition of the Detroit News.