VW labor leaders try to save works council

Williams: "We're not leaving Chattanooga."

CHATTANOOGA -- Now that Volkswagen workers here have turned away the UAW, labor leaders within VW are going back to the drawing board to achieve their broader goal: setting up a works council to give workers a say in corporate decisions.

The struggle to reconcile German labor practices with American laws and political realities could lead workers in Chattanooga to take some bold steps -- such as creating their own union -- to get a voice at Volkswagen AG's headquarters in Wolfsburg.

Whether they succeed may determine how VW, a company with heavy labor influence at the highest levels of management, invests in the United States for years to come.

Works councils, common under German law, allow blue-collar and white-collar workers to vote on workplace conditions. VW has them at all of its other assembly plants outside China and Russia and tends to defer to their local decisions. Each plant also sends delegates to a global works council that influences which products the company makes and where.

Gunnar Kilian, secretary general of VW's global works council, said in a statement last week that he and Frank Patta, another top works council official, will consult U.S. labor law experts over the next two weeks to plan further steps. "We are committed to our goal of establishing a works council in Chattanooga," he said.

Interviews with several Chattanooga workers suggest that the idea is popular, even among people who were skeptical of the union's pitch, such as quality inspector Sean Moss, who helped circulate an anti-UAW petition that garnered more than 600 signatures.

"I haven't heard from anybody in the plant who doesn't want a works council in the plant and to have the seat on the global works council," said Moss, 45. "It's just how we go about getting there."

UAW supporters aren't sure a works council would work without a union. Justin King, who fixes electronics glitches in cars at the plant, said that unless the works council has legal force -- like a union contract -- VW could just ignore its advice.

But King, 30, said he intends to seek out UAW opponents to discuss how a works council might be set up without a union. Until he does that, King said, he will not know "whether they were just trying to shoot the whole process down" by voting against the UAW, "or whether they think there's a way for us to move forward."

A different union?

If such a council were set up without the UAW, it likely wouldn't arouse the same level of opposition from Republican politicians and anti-union activists.

U.S. Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tenn., who tried to turn workers against the UAW by warning that the union would put a plant expansion at risk, said he primarily opposes the UAW -- not a works council.

The tough question for VW is whether a works council would be legal without a union. In the past, the automaker has concurred with legal experts who said it would violate U.S. laws against company-dominated unions.

VW and its workers will now rethink their options. One option would be talking with a different union. Another would be moving ahead without a union. Corker said he has suggested that workers in Chattanooga organize their own.

Steve Silvia, a professor of economics and trade at American University in Washington, said workers in Chattanooga could legally set up their own union. The question, he said, is whether that union would win majority support, including strong UAW supporters and strong union critics.

"They can't do it without a union," Silvia said. "But if they create their own union -- which you can do -- and they can get a majority to vote for that union, that could work."

Future investments in North America could hinge on it. Bernd Osterloh, chairman of VW's works council, told the German newspaper Sueddeutsche Zeitung last week that if VW executives want to build another U.S. assembly plant, labor leaders "will hardly be able to vote in favor" of building it in the South so long as the workers there aren't represented.

With or without UAW

Under a 22-page agreement with VW dated Jan. 27, the UAW agreed to cease organizing in Chattanooga for a year if it lost the election. But having lost by just 86 votes, the union isn't giving up on what may have been its best chance at organizing a Southern plant, a goal on which departing UAW President Bob King staked his legacy.

"We're not leaving Chattanooga," said Dennis Williams, King's likely successor. "It took seven years to organize Ford, and I will be around for at least another five."

Already, the union has filed an appeal with the National Labor Relations Board seeking a new election, citing improper interference by politicians and outside groups.

Either way, for the UAW's opponents, the clock is running. Mike Burton, a 56-year-old paint shop worker who started the Web site no2uaw.com and became a leader of the opposition, said outside groups already have come forward offering free legal help.

"We have 365 days," Burton said, "before the UAW can darken our doors again."

You can reach Gabe Nelson at gnelson@crain.com

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