Tuesday, February 18, 2014

German Works Councils, the UAW, and VW's Stakeholding Culture

Workers at VW's Chattanooga, Tennessee, plant rejected UAW unionization by a vote of 712 to 626, the NY Times reports. This was a blow not only to the union, but to VW management as well. In a stance U.S. auto executives found as foreign as month-long holidays, VW leaders not only did not oppose the organization move, they seemed to welcome it as a way to introduce works councils.

By law and corporate culture, VW takes seriously the German model of "co-determination," with labor treated as stakeholders alongside stockholders. And they have exported this system of labor relations from their home in Wolfsburg to factories around the world.

The practice of co-determination is built around "works councils," tiered organizations of employee representatives (blue and white collar) elected by their peers. At the grassroots level, shop-floor works councils help organize employee schedules and make tweaks in the production line. Two years ago, middle management works councils successfully lobbied VW to have its corporate Blackberry server to stop sending message to employee's devices 30 minutes after their work day ends (and begin again 30 minutes before the next shift).

At the upper level, works council representatives hold half of the seats on the company's supervisory board, which introduces new voices and incentives in boardroom deliberations. VW obviously thinks this approach brings value, as they have implemented the system abroad.

So, with VW supporting the union, how did it lose this crucial vote? Union supporters have pointed out that the vote was much closer than other southern auto plant votes in recent years. And Republican politicians and pro-business groups took an aggressive, to the point of hysterical, public stance against the union (even threatening future expansion of the plant if the UAW won).

In fact, in the quotes I have read, workers are very open to works councils, and see VW as a good employer. The vote, then, should be seen as a commentary by basically satisfied workers on the UAW's confrontational model of labor relations, a perceived affinity for striking over stakeholding.

Paradoxically, U.S. labor laws meant to protect worker rights appear to prohibit the works council model in the absence of a union, thwarting the sort of organization that both labor and management prefer.  

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