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The NLRB election at VW in Chattanooga came down to a narrow vote, made in the context of serious interference by third parties intent on seeing the UAW lose.  With 89% turnout, the result turned on the votes of 44 workers, less than 3% of the eligible workforce.  Cue the schadenfreude and self loathing.    While a grave disappointment, this is not the end.  This is just the beginning.

As the present UAW secretary-treasurer, and presumptive next president, Dennis Williams put it:

"We're not leaving Chattanooga," said Williams, who likely will be elected to a four-year term as president in June. "It took seven years to organize Ford, and I will be around for at least another five."

That organizing campaign culminated in what's been called Battle of the Overpass, where Ford Service Department, aka hired thugs, men  beat down Richard Franksteen, the UAW's Ford organizing director, in full view of the press, and pushed another UAW staffer off the pedestrian overpass to the rails 30 feet below. Sort of puts things into context, huh?

In the grand scheme of things, the threats made by outside parties during the VW organizing campaign, and NLRB election, in Tennessee pale in comparison.

The Battle of the Overpass in 1937 was not the first time that actual, physical, violence had been employed against workers trying to organize.  Nor was it the worst.  Ignoring the outright massacres: Homestead, Ludlow, Matewan, and Blair Mountain

The organizing campaign had started five years earlier with the Ford Hunger March on the same factory complex, ending in the killing of four, and the wounding of another nearly two dozen.  What happened at VW was awful, and wrong, but it was not, by far, the worst that could have happened. If the men and women who had just watched their comrades be shot down, could get up and do it again, surely this isn't the end for the organizing campaign at VW.

"Do you really want to bring in a 3rd Party?"

One of the more shocking aspects of what has happened in Tennessee has been that the anti-union campaign has been entirely organized by outside groups. Across the Chattanooga area, anti-union billboards have been popping up:  Actually a front for Grover Norquist and his ATR, a DC based special interest group.  Actually a front for the Competitive Enterprise Institute, again a DC based special interest group.

What makes this all the more galling is that it is standard union busting practice to try to dissuade  workers from joining unions by claiming that they are a third party group acting to protect their own interests, not those of workers.  Which of course is the responsibility of management.

Moving Forward

In the wake of this narrow loss, it may appear that all is lost.  It is not.

First, the UAW is unlikely to take this sitting down.  A challenge to the results based upon outside interference would already appear to be in the offing.This is a hard sell, because there is no real precedent for acting based upon outside groups biasing the results of an election.

Second, even if there is no challenge, NLRB rules require a cooling off period of a year before another election can be held.  Nonetheless, this would require boots on the ground to restart the whole process, including collecting new, signed cards from workers for another election.

Third, there's the possibility of a loophole to this time frame. The German autoworker's IG Metall was apparently displeased that the UAW didn't close the deal. IG Metall was instrumental in making sure VW's public statements matched their private conduct.  They may decide top ditch the UAW in favor of another union.  In the US, the IUE-CWA (International Union of Electrical Workers-Communications Workers of America) has represented workers at auto plants. Outside this, IG Metall would be talking about working with an unknown quantity. This is likely a non-starter, because doing this would poison any possibility for concerted action with the UAW and GM-owned Opel and Ford in Germany.

Finally, and this is certain.  VW's global works councils just announced that it will act to establish a local works council at the Tennessee plant:

Volkswagen's works council said it would press on with efforts to set up labor representation at its Chattanooga, Tennessee plant, undeterred by a workers' vote against any such step involving the United Auto Workers union (UAW).


"The outcome of the vote, however, does not change our goal of setting up a works council in Chattanooga," Gunnar Kilian, secretary general of VW's works council, said in a statement on Sunday, adding that workers continued to back the idea of labor representation at the plant.

The understanding has always been that it is against US law for an works council to be established absent union representation, because this would represent an employer dominated body in violation of the NLRA. The Electromation case refers to this same section of the NLRA, but it is unclear whether it outright prohibits works councils, as the decision centered on a different form of non-union workplace representation.  The decision of VW's global works council (note that this is not the company itself) to move forward with establishing a works council is a gutsy move that invites legal challenge.  Ironically, this challenge is most likely to come from the outside, anti-union, groups.

The UAW is likely to see this establishment of a works council as a positive development.  In fact, it's highly likely that the German union IG Metall has orchestrated this development in support of their American brethren. See, in Europe, and in Germany in particular, much of union's finances are supported by the works council rather than direct support from workers.  If this works council survives legal challenge, it likely is a far more detrimental outcome for Corker and company than a simple UAW victory at VW would have been.

The Works Council Explained

Works councils are not unions, nor are they workers' councils.  In the German version, there is a very strict delineation between the role of the union and works council.  Shop floor issues (safety, general working conditions, consultation on changes in production) are handled by the works council.  Negotiation of wages and benefits is handled by labor unions, well above the level of the individual facility.  In general, minimum wages in Germany are not set by the state, instead they are negotiated at the sectoral level by the representatives of labor, aka unions, and the employer's federation, encompassing most firms in sector.

The American practice of pattern bargaining, where the UAW will conclude an agreement with whichever of the Big Three is chosen as strike target, and then seeks to replicate this agreement across the industry as a whole, is not entirely dissimilar. As a matter of practice, for the most part the leadership of the works council and the labor union overlap. An important benefit of this is that German law requires the employer bear the entire cost of the operation of the works council. This includes salary for full time works council representatives, of which a facility the size of VW-Chattanooga would have around 15. In essence, the works council takes most of the task we associate with a union shop steward in the US, and transposes this to the works council. Really, most of the tasks we associate with a union local in the US are handled by the works council.  Save negotiation on wages and benefits.  That is handled by the equivalent of the international union.

All of this is very useful in a right to work situation, because it mitigates the impact of lost revenue from freeloaders not paying their union dues. This would be damn useful in right to work states, which unfortunately not includes much of industrial heartland of the auto industry in the Great Lakes region. In short, there's a real advantage to having a works council, even if there isn't a traditional union in the workplace.

Mr. President, Take it Easy on the Working Man

Interpretation of the NLRA by an administrative law judge is what has halted the development of works councils in the US.  I believe that there is room for action through executive order here.  

There is a proud history of executive orders being used to further social progress when Congress refused to act.  Prior to the Second World War,  FDR signed EO 8802 which required that firms involved in defense industries do not discriminate against African-American workers. In the past week, the President signed an executive order raising the pay for federal contract workers to $10.10 an hour.

Because the US government purchases so much from private companies, there are relatively few employers who can not be brought to account through executive orders. I would submit that if President Obama wants to have a lasting impact that an executive order permitting, if not requiring, the establishment of elected works councils at employers above a certain threshhold, would do more to counter the abuse of American workers than almost any other action. Moreover, I think that an executive order to this effect would set the ground for Congressional action. The anti-labor caucus has always been one to call out labor unions as third parties, let them explain how they square this position with an attempt to organize democratic (note little d) representation for workers limited to shopfloor issues.

Originally posted to ManfromMiddletown on Mon Feb 17, 2014 at 07:50 AM PST.

Also republished by Three Star Kossacks and Community Spotlight.

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Comment Preferences

  •  excellent diary - finally I understood (14+ / 0-)

    why the German-style work council is difficult to set up in the US. Have to read it again more carefully. But this diary is a gift sent from heaven for me to understand the basics of what is going on.

    And of course it's time for US work councils and a lift from the regulation that you can't create one if you don't have a unionized company already.

    The decision of VW's global works council (note that this is not the company itself) to move forward with establishing a works council is a gutsy move that invites legal challenge.  Ironically, this challenge is most likely to come from the outside, anti-union, groups.

    The UAW is likely to see this establishment of a works council as a positive development.  In fact, it's highly likely that the German union IG Metall has orchestrated this development in support of their American brethren. See, in Europe, and in Germany in particular, much of union's finances are supported by the works council rather than direct support from workers.  If this works council survives legal challenge, it likely is a far more detrimental outcome for Corker and company than a simple UAW victory at VW would have been.

    Yes!! Let the challenges come ... proceed please. :)

    If I don't answer to your comment, it means I was distracted by work. I can only be polite to one person, my boss or you. Guess who my boss thinks is more important? Guess what's missing? Where is my work council ???

    by mimi on Mon Feb 17, 2014 at 08:09:43 AM PST

    •  Management at most companies would fiercely (4+ / 0-)

      resist this if the councils were to be given any real power. They would not want to deal with a union of any kind, whether with a capital or small "u", unless they could run the thing. See my post below.

      The labor movement need to create ASAP an "at-large" membership for 50 cents or a buck a month that could be part of an outfit like Jobs With Justice.

      "If you love your Uncle Sam bring them home, bring them home." - Pete Seeger.

      by brae70 on Mon Feb 17, 2014 at 09:57:25 AM PST

      [ Parent ]

      •  Most AMERICAN managment would ... (4+ / 0-)

        But my understanding is that large European manufacturers engage their unions as partners in their business model ... and use the collective bargaining process in preference to having the Invisible Hand of the Market periodically choke off their access to the best workforce available.

        I thought the resistance to the UAW in Chattanooga was from OTHER business interests than VW ... and therefore from the Governor's office and the Republican legislature.

        (Of course, VW management might be more responsive to threats ...  delivered quietly and not-in-writing ... to cut off promised tax subsidies and block further expansion of VW enterprises in Tennessee unless VW joins the Local Lords of Creation in fighting Obama's Unions -

        I dunno ...

        Tennessee has a mild climate, modest costs of living,  and inexpensive electricity.

        •  Well, yes, I was referring to US management. (1+ / 0-)
          Recommended by:

          But I didn't say anywhere that resistance to the UAW was coming from VW management. Several diaries and comments have made it clear that the VW higher-ups were neutral or even slightly favorable to the UAW.

          Perhaps you misunderstood my comment. I was well aware of the threats made by outside parties in this situation.

          As, I said most US companies would only consider a works council if it did not impede on management's perogatives. Any substantial worker empowerment, such as exists in Europe, would be resisted.

          "If you love your Uncle Sam bring them home, bring them home." - Pete Seeger.

          by brae70 on Mon Feb 17, 2014 at 04:36:02 PM PST

          [ Parent ]

  •  Why not simply amend the Labor law or Exec order (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    commonmass, VClib

    I'm not expert on Labor law, but my understanding is that the reason for the UAW vote being necessary in the first place is that "work councils" are possibly a violation of it, absent union representation.  Because, work councils were never contemplated when the labor law was passed in the 40's.

    So why not push to amend the labor law to allow work councils in non-union plants, instead?

    •  Actually works councils were created io the US (8+ / 0-)

      during World War I and some lasted into the 1920's. They were ended because of the conservative drift of the times. management wanted to get rid of them because union members were winning many of the seats on the councils.

      Company unions were established in the 20's as part of the "American Plan" to crush real labor organizations. These company unions were largely straw organizations and were outlawed by the Act in 1935 which forbade an employer to:

      dominate or interfere with the formation or administration of any labor organization or contribute financial or other support to it
      A few of these were converted by their members into independent unions and continued into the 70's and 80's when they, too encountered a new wave of union-busting.

      During the Reagan years, the fad was to create programs with names such as Quality of Worklife (QWL) or Employee Involvement (EI). These were touted as "cooperative" programs but many saw in them a ploy to simply pick workers brains to find ways to speed up the work.

      In any case, I would want any committee that claimed to represent me to be completely free of management influence. I could go along with your suggestion if this could be guaranteed by law and partial recognition were given to minority unions.

      "If you love your Uncle Sam bring them home, bring them home." - Pete Seeger.

      by brae70 on Mon Feb 17, 2014 at 09:48:58 AM PST

      [ Parent ]

      •  Well, German Works Councils have an interesting (4+ / 0-)

        provenance: I hate to bring this up, because, well, because, but when the National Socialists abolished independent trade unions, these Works Councils were what was left to replace them.

        I think they are a great idea, but I hate to bring this up because it's fodder for the whack-job right.

        Pope Francis: the Thumb of Christ in the eyes of the Pharisees.

        by commonmass on Mon Feb 17, 2014 at 01:44:07 PM PST

        [ Parent ]

        •  I agee with your basic point, but Europe is (3+ / 0-)
          Recommended by:
          Bisbonian, bronte17, aufklaerer

          not the US. Most of Europe has a much stronger labor movement so they can shape these councils more to suit their needs.

          See a couple of articles on the proposed VW works councils here:

          An excerpt form the first article by Jane Slaughter:

          Works councils were established in Germany through a 1920 law, specifically as an alternative to the workers’ councils that had sprung up in many factories after World War I. Workers attempted to take direct democratic control of the plants through the workers’ councils, on their way to a revolution that would take over the government. That uprising was thwarted.

          The works councils, then, were the German government’s attempt at pacifying militant workers. There were mass demonstrations by workers who opposed the works councils law, charging it would hinder workers’ independent organization. Forty-two were killed by police and a state of emergency was declared, but the law went into effect.

          The works councils were abolished by the Nazis but reinstated after World War II under the military government of the United States and its allies.


          "If you love your Uncle Sam bring them home, bring them home." - Pete Seeger.

          by brae70 on Mon Feb 17, 2014 at 04:54:35 PM PST

          [ Parent ]

    •  Non-organized works councils (1+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:

      Because without a labor union, the Works council would just become a management tool to enforce company policy.

      Note: We have a "Works Council" at my job, although it is called by another name: The Business Partnership.One of the union representatives is always a shop steward. This is a logical appointment, since the shop steward is appointed by the union management to be their agent on the shop floor. The other labor representatives are elected by the members.

      As several writers point out, the union negotiates wages, benefits, and working conditions, while the BP settles day-to-day work issues. The BP has become instrumental in interpreting the intent of the union contract, and handling disputes before they become grievances.

      The problem is American management doesn't believe workers should have ANY voice.

      For we wrestle not against flesh and blood, but against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this world, against spiritual wickedness in high places.

      by Grey Fedora on Mon Feb 17, 2014 at 05:06:42 PM PST

      [ Parent ]

  •  at some other site (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    commonmass, Dirtandiron

    someone commented that for a southerner to vote for anything with the word Union in it was going to be a stretch. They were talking about the civil war reference.

    is the south/Kentucky still ranting on about that? seriously?

    •  When I was a kid in the 70's (4+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      marykk, commonmass, Dirtandiron, nextstep

      and well into the 80's. Calling someone a "Yankee" was about as bad an insult as you could hurl at someone. It's much less so today, but you'll note there are places in eastern Europe and elsewhere where people still hold animosity over lost wars, invasions, etc... from like 1500 years ago. This stuff takes time.

      I think it's more the fact that UAW is a pretty tarnished word at this stage. Especially in the south. Most southerns hear UAW and it might as well be"supreme soviet".

  •  Wrong way to analyze this issue (3+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    marykk, commonmass, VTCC73

    The NLRB has made it clear that you don't analyze issues of employer domination or interference by labels. Instead, you start from whether there is a violation of Sec. 8(a)(2).

    The question is whether the employer is illegally dominating or assisting an employee labor organization.

    If you read the legislative history of the NLRA, it is clear that this issue of illegal assistance and domination is the core evil Congress wanted to eradicate. (By the way, the legislative history, especially the testimony, makes a great read.)

    It also seems unlikely that the election or certification bar would not apply to union efforts to begin organizing anew.

    The NLRB's website includes many manuals and other helpful  information.

    •  VW and the works council proposition needs to (0+ / 0-)

      thread that Section 8 and work around it, massage an alternative out of it, to accomplish the formation of works councils.

      It appears that the financial support for the works councils by the company itself is what triggers this problem. The issue to get around is the financial support by the company for the works council.

      Despite the variation, however, works councils in Germany have some consistent features.  As Stephen Befort describes, German works councils are entitled to “consult” with management on a range of topics.  Councils have a right to “receive information from, and exchange views with, management concerning the employer’s compliance with applicable laws and on general business matters.”  And, beyond consultation, German works councils have a right of co-determination on “social topics, such as work scheduling, safety measures, and the restructuring of jobs.”  But, and this is quite relevant, German works councils are prohibited from bargaining over wages, from striking, and from using “other types of economic action in support of its position.”

      Next, however new a Chattanooga works council would be for U.S. industrial relations, current labor law requires that works councils be embedded in a structure of unionization.   That is, works councils in the U.S. must – at least under current law – function more as a supplement to unionization than as an alternative to unionization.  This legal requirement limits, for better or worse, works councils’ potential to reorder industrial-relations systems in the United States.  From the Times story: “VW officials said that a works council can be created at a company in the United States only with the cooperation of a labor union because it might otherwise be viewed as an illegal company-sponsored union.  That, the VW officials wrote, is why the company has started its dialogue with the U.A.W.”

      The risk that VW officials have in mind is that a works council – established in a non-union workplace – would violate section 8(a)(2) of the NLRA.  That section makes it an unfair labor practice for an employer to “dominate or interfere with the formation or administration of any labor organization or contribute financial or other support to it.”  The VW position is likely correct: they can’t do this without a union.

      It appears to me that Section 8 deals with unfair labor practices by the employer. A works council is not an unfair labor practice by an employer. A work council's very definition is one of "co-determination" on social issues on the job. And Section 7 very clearly states the Rights of Employees to self-organization and mutual aid and protection.

      One does not become enlightened by imagining figures of light, but by making the darkness conscious. --Carl Jung

      by bronte17 on Mon Feb 17, 2014 at 04:34:33 PM PST

      [ Parent ]

  •  Ever since school, I've been struggling mightily (4+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    irocdk, mbayrob, roadbear, aufklaerer

    with the issues of Unionization.  I recognize that I've lived in primarily blue states for the past 10 years, with a couple years' exception, but it's been extraordinarily frustrating to me to see that, in many states, people simply don't see the benefit of a Union.  Hell, I've even done a little employer-side work, before switching to criminal law, and having an organization on the "other side" to work with is extremely helpful.  Although I was an intern in those positions, I could readily see that more good things could be accomplished when my bosses could pick up the phone and call somebody.  Without a labor union, nobody's there to answer the phone.

    I am a little bit fearful of reopening the NLRA, as I think that the GOP will amend any NLRA-related bills to death in an attempt to water down the underlying NLRA.  But, in the near term, if we're not going to be able to win Union elections even when management wants a Union - VW wants to have someone who will answer the phone when they call, clearly - it's time to think big, and while I agree that Works Councils are probably prohibited under the NLRA, I would be open to amending the NLRA to permit them, particularly if a Works Council could be initiated by employees as well as employers.

    Unionization rates have plummeted in the private sector, and support for Unions has as well; we need to start thinking big and look for ways to improve those numbers, and if we can't even organize a company where managers want its workers to be organized, then we need to start thinking really big.

    "The first drawback of anger is that it destroys your inner peace; the second is that it distorts your view of reality. If you come to understand that anger is really unhelpful, you can begin to distance yourself from anger." - The Dalai Lama

    by auron renouille on Mon Feb 17, 2014 at 02:29:18 PM PST

  •  vote no on union representation? (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:

    while this is an excellent diary about unionization and work councils, i am still confounded by the mindset of a person who would vote against unionization.  has anyone interviewed someone who voted no because i really just want to understand the mindset of someone who would literally vote against their best interests?

    •  irocdk - there are some press reports (2+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      Sparhawk, aufklaerer

      that purport to have interviewed workers who voted against the UAW. The reasons are the ones you would imagine, their current pay is at least as good as the new UAW contracts with the Big Three, they have been treated fairly by VW, they don't like the us/them friction that can exist in union shops, and they like the flexible work rules that allow anyone to talk to anyone without any formal process.

      "let's talk about that"

      by VClib on Mon Feb 17, 2014 at 05:45:32 PM PST

      [ Parent ]

      •  The reasons given by the anti-union workers (1+ / 0-)
        Recommended by:

        were vapidly stupid.

        They are afraid the UAW will recognize and help the temps? What is that about? Here in Kentucky, Toyota's workforce is like 70% or more temps. Permanent temps. What shouldn't they have the right to a union too? Why does their unionization affect that VW worker's right to work or to have a safe workplace?

        And what is that business about "the right to look for another job" as long as he's not represented by a union?

        And Detroit was killed by the UAW? There are a lot of reasons why Detroit grew for 40 years and then shrank back to its previous population, but the UAW isn't to blame.

        The group’s reasons for opposing a union range from “trusting” that management will continue wage parity with the Big 3 through fear of a shutdown through the UAW’s record on allowing temps and two-tier wages.

        Walden said the antis fear management will close the plant or “don’t want to deal with the UAW. They don’t seem to be able to articulate it that well, but they blame the UAW for what happened to Detroit.

        One commenter on the anti site, channeling anti-union workers everywhere, wrote: “I choose, everyday, to come to work at VW Chattanooga Operations and I love my job. If this ever changes, I know that I have the right to look for another job.

        One does not become enlightened by imagining figures of light, but by making the darkness conscious. --Carl Jung

        by bronte17 on Mon Feb 17, 2014 at 08:25:01 PM PST

        [ Parent ]

    •  Fear, Uncertainty, Discord... (1+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:

      There's been a long term, concerted effort to convince the American laborer that the union is -not- in his better interest. They are told "Unions strangle companies under their weight." Most of the first complaint comes from the unions having fought against the stripping of various benefits like pensions and decent health plans in the name of the corporate greed-is-good culture, with a healthy dose of blame placed on them for the hard times that the big three American automakers have had since the Japanese imports showed up on shore: The unions made it harder for them to slash and burn their way to profitability when the companies management proved unwilling to make viable product to sell, which made them a convenient scapegoat.

      They are told that unions are crime ridden and corrupt: Some unions over the years proved vulnerable to takeover by organized crime, and bad apples pop up in the leadership of unions just like they do in the leadership of any other organization. These scandals have been getting played up for a long time - it leaves people distrustful, because they don't see much but the scandals.

      And then, there's the Democratic affiliation, especially in the ex-Confederate states. These are people who are generally mistrustful of collective action in general and the progressive agenda in specific. The thought of union dues going to Democratic candidates pisses some people off - and no one ever seems to mention that you have to opt in to your dues going to the union's political activities. When I was a kid, and my father's union sent out their advocacy letters, it used to tweak him off pretty badly, at the time, he was more likely to vote the NRA list than the union list, and they never matched.

      So, these people don't think it's in their best interest to be in a union, not until that bubble gets popped.

  •  Why not? It works quite well for VW (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:

    They pay their workers in Germany twice the amount paid by GM,

    $67.14 hr vs $33.77 hr

    while at the same time making three times the profit

    but they would have to drop their selfish mindset and actually work with and listen to their employees.

    Some people have short memories

    by lenzy1000 on Mon Feb 17, 2014 at 05:02:14 PM PST

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