UAW President Bob King took over the autoworkers' union three years ago with a vision for a less combative relationship with employers. He also trained the union's organizing focus on the South, where most of the major German, Japanese and Korean automakers have built non-union assembly plants to supply the U.S. market.
King, 66, now seems close to a breakthrough on both fronts. His union is in talks with Volkswagen AG about how to set up a German-style works council at the Chattanooga assembly plant that has built the Passat sedan since it started production in 2011.
King, joined by UAW Region 8 Director Gary Casteel and Horst Mund, the head of the international program at the German industrial union IG Metall, spoke this week with Staff Reporters Gabe Nelson and Amy Wilson.
Q: What exactly is the new model you would like to set up in Chattanooga?
Casteel: What we can tell you is: we're eager to form a representation model built on collaboration and cooperation that's consistent with the VW culture and philosophy.
It would be based on a German model. Can it work in the U.S.?
King: I'm lucky to sit on the Opel supervisory board, so I see the German codetermination system operating firsthand. It's a great system. The works councils, the supervisory board, the codetermination, to me all give workers a stronger voice, and therefore make the company more successful. We would be really open to building that kind of a system in the U.S., through the UAW contracts with a number of different employers.
The other thing that the German model shows us is that for collaboration to work, there's got to be strong management and a strong union. Germany works, in my opinion, because IG Metall is a very strong union, very focused on the interests of its membership. The company and the union together want to succeed. If you did not have strong leadership in IG Metall, and you did not have strong leadership in the works councils, it wouldn't work.
Mund: We may have a legal framework that is facilitating unionization, but management would knock through us, if we were not strong. Even if it is much less adversarial than what you have in the U.S., if we were not strong as IG Metall or the unions in Germany, they would not take us seriously. So you need that. You need that. That is one pillar that we have in Germany, the union, representing only the interests of the voluntary members. The second pillar is the works council, which is elected by each and everybody in the plant. The works council needs to represent each and everybody, unlike the union, in Germany. We represent the interests our members only. That's the difference with what you have in the U.S.
Casteel: We're talking to the workers in Tuscaloosa, and we're talking to the workers at Nissan, and that's the approach we keep appealing to Nissan to use, a more collaborative approach than this traditional adversarial route.
So you want Nissan to use a German codetermination system?
King: Or what they use in Japan. That's what's frustrating. Because there are really good relationships between the union and the company in Japan, and we think that's the right model.
Could this approach work at a BMW plant or a Mercedes plant in the U.S.?
King: I think a collaboration model works everywhere, and I really strongly endorse it. We talk about the UAW of the 21st century, saying: The world has changed. Companies are in global competition. If we don't all work together, they're not going to be successful. If the company's not successful, we can't be successful, and our members don't have the security we want them to have.
At what plants in the U.S. might it be easiest to make this work?
Casteel: Wherever there's an employer willing to agree to it, or to be party to it, which is really in the employer's arena -- not ours.
Would this model make it easier or harder to get new investment?
King: The better the plant operates - the higher the quality, the better the products, the better the joint problem-solving -- the more product a plant is going to get. Being represented is so critically important for a German company. To have people as part of the process, to be part of the world employee council, is critically important.
Mund: What I notice is that there is already an increasing curiosity among our guys in Germany... There are a number of companies strongly present in the U.S., where our guys say, that is something we want to know more of. Let's wait and see until this thing sees the light of day, and then we go into it. The interest is there.
How would a contract look different with a codetermination model?
King: That gets into the areas that we'd eventually have to do with the company.
Casteel: There's a different legal situation in the U.S., compared to Germany, on what's covered by agreements. Under the U.S. law, there are certain requirements placed on unions, and under the German law, there are certain requirements placed on unions, and they're different.
King: We'll have to see.
Casteel: It's kind of a fluid question.
Why is Germany ahead of the United States from your point of view?
King: There, it's legislated. Here, we bargain it employer by employer. If you compare a Big Three plant to the German system, there's a lot of codetermination. Joint programs, we call it. In health and safety and training and ergonomics and productivity. All these areas. I think there are 12 or 14 areas where we have joint programs, so that would be very close. If you go to a nonunion workplace, there's none of that. But we're only, private industry, 7 percent organized, so that's why they're way ahead of us, I would say.
Mund: In Germany, you don't need to organize a full facility. Everyone can be a member of IG Metall. He may be a minority in his plant, and still he's an IG Metall member. At the same time, there can be a works council in the same facility because all the workers have decided to elect one.
King: Different laws.
What progress has been made in organizing Chattanooga?
King: Volkswagen is an extremely honorable company, which really believes in representation, which has really made sure that it will be the workers' decision. Too often, global companies believe in this -- Nissan is an example. They say they support the U.N. global compact, they support the ILO, the OECD standards, all those global standards. And yet every day in the U.S., their managers violate those standards. Volkswagen, to their credit, has really made sure that their U.S. management is living up to the Volkswagen standards.
VW shuffled the top managers at the plant last year. Has the plant become more or less accepting of organizing efforts since then?
Casteel: I wouldn't want to get into before and after situations. They continue, to the best of their ability, to try to enforce neutrality.
Do you think they mean it, when they say they are neutral?
Casteel: I believe they're committed to it.
King: Volkswagen lives it. They don't just say it.
Casteel: I know firsthand that they're committed to it. What the problem is, the same problem we have as a union. If you've got 2,500 or 3,000 people running around a factory, you can't control what everybody's doing. Well, they've got hundreds of management people there. They may have somebody there who is vehemently anti-union and trying to beat it every minute of every day. If he's clever enough, it's hard for them to control that. But as a philosophy, they're committed to neutrality.
How open have they been to you at the plant?
Casteel: We've had no access to the facility. Ever. All of the work that's being done on this organizing attempt is being done by the employees of the Chattanooga facility.
Have you heard of any attempt to stop them from organizing?
King: As Gary said, you can't control everybody. I really want to praise Volkswagen, because they've done better than any company I've dealt with -- any transnational auto company -- in really living by what they say their charter is, and their standards are. They really try to enforce it. Are there exceptions? Yes. Have there been issues that we've had to deal with? Yes. But they've responded.
What level of support do you have among the workers?
King: That's the stuff we don't want to comment on now, because we don't want to pre-empt the workers. That will come out publicly when it comes out jointly.
But there's a card check ongoing?
King: There is organizing. The workers -- the leadership in the facility -- is actively promoting their belief that having representation is in their best interest. They're talking to their co-workers, and there's good support, without putting numbers or a timeline on it.
Are they collecting cards of support for the UAW?
King: I don't know what has been said publicly. Is that something we would want to comment on? No? OK.
So you won't say whether they're collecting cards.
Casteel: No, we wouldn't have a comment about the cards.
From the way you've been talking, it sounds like you feel the UAW has a majority of support. Can you say that at this point?
King: No. Again, my view is that pre-empts the workers, and we don't want to do that. As Gary said, this has been done very differently from other organizing drives. There has been a lot of collaboration between IG Metall, the UAW, works council, management. The workers are leading this campaign, and when that announcement is made, we want [it to be from] the workers.
How are they going to come out and say, we have the support to make this happen?
King: That's part of the collaborative process. We've agreed we'll jointly talk about that. So we're not going to talk about it here, as one party to a collaborative approach.
Casteel: The best way to term it, I think, is that we would make no announcement independently. If there was an announcement to be made, we would intend to have a joint communication strategy with VW. Let's leave it at that.
We've heard there may be no new products coming to this plant until it has a works council. Is that something you have heard as well? [A labor leader who sits on VW's supervisory board was quoted by a German news agency last week saying the board won't authorize new investment at the plant without a works council.]
Mund: Investment decisions are made on a number of criteria. Of course, it's in our interest that the issue of representation is one of the criteria. All the more reason to get Chattanooga -- which is the only plant in the entire Volkswagen cosmos that is not organized -- to get it organized, and to get it organized quickly.
King: If I was a worker, if I was a member of the Chattanooga community, and I wanted to have the best chance of getting new investment and new product, I would want a voice on the world employee council. I would want somebody there representing the interests of Chattanooga. I wouldn't want a decision made where every other plant in the world has representation there, and I don't have somebody speaking up for me. So I would think everybody in this community would strive for understanding German law, understanding co-determination, I would want a voice in that decision-making process.
How have the state politicians played a role?
King: I recognize in the past, [U.S. Sen.] Lamar Alexander was a big champion for Spring Hill. He's a Republican senator, but he's always been there for Spring Hill. So we have a history of a collaborative process -- community, union, company -- working together to get a product. I would hope that Gov. [Bill] Haslam and Sen. [Bob] Corker understand the Volkswagen system, and really work together with the IG Metall, works council, to make this a great facility, and get new product.
Has that happened so far?
King: Well, obviously not.
Casteel: I've reached out to Corker, and talked to his staff about the possibility of a meeting to discuss how we work together. He has not responded, twice.
That was recently?
Casteel: He told me at the Spring Hill announcement. His very words were: "I'll make that happen." When I asked him about a meeting to discuss another success story in Tennessee, which was the glass plant in Nashville that was sold before to Carlex, and we have a great relationship with the Japanese that now own it. That was the request at that time. Since that time, I've talked to his chief of staff about a meeting to discuss the possibility of a new representation model, and trying to get his support for it, but he has declined.
Casteel: On Tennessee politics, I'll say this: I don't that there's one politician, that has commented on the Chattanooga situation, from the governor to the senator, that has taken the time to understand Volkswagen's culture and philosophy and success factors.
Some have compared this idea to the UAW's experiment at the Saturn plant in Spring Hill, Tenn. That was undone, years before Saturn shut down. Would this be able to last?
King: That wasn't undone because of the innovations. The innovations at Saturn, I would argue, spread throughout the UAW. The cooperation. The collaborative approach. Not all the specifics, but the general philosophy and general attitude is part of the reason I think there's a really successful relationship between GM and the UAW today.
Casteel: None of the undoing of the Saturn experience was due to labor-management relations. Their problem was that they were a solo brand, they had all these costs that the other manufacturers spread across multiple platforms. They were riding it on one car. It was necessary to reconfigure back into the main system. But it had nothing to do with the labor relations model. A lot of the things that Bob said were back in the original Saturn agreement became incorporated back into the national agreement.
How important is it to you personally, to organize the Chattanooga plant or another of the Southern plants?
King: It's important for the workers here. Our lives - all three of us - are about fairness, respect and dignity for workers. Workers in Chattanooga, workers in Canton, Miss., workers in Smyrna -- you can pick any location in the South. They're going to have more dignity, they're going to have more respect, they're going to have more voice in decisions if they have representation. That's our driving motivation.
You're stepping down as UAW president in about a year. Is it important for you to make it happen before you go?
King: It has always been important to us. At the convention, I said it would happen in a year. That year stretched out a little bit. But I feel really good about the progress we're making, not just here, but a bunch of places.
Do you think it can happen within a year?
King: I'm an optimist.
Casteel: There's factually no reason it can't.
How important is it going to be for the future of the UAW?
King: This one is difficult for people to understand. For all autoworkers, if you get the whole industry organized, all autoworkers will do better, because they'll have a greater voice. I think for all autoworkers, it's better if all the plants are organized, and they all have a voice, and there's a standard like there is in Germany of good pay and good benefits, and the companies are competing not on the basis of who pays the least, but who has the best quality.
Casteel: We get asked that a lot. But if the UAW has a million members, we're structured to represent a million members. If we had 100,000 members, we'd be structured to represent 100,000 members. Naturally, as unionists, we want to see unions flourish, but the real challenge we have is rebuilding the middle class. You have a lot of these transnationals now running at 50 percent temporaries. They can't even buy the product that they're building. They certainly can't buy a home. They can't contribute to the economy. So what we're seeing is the Walmart-ization of the auto industry. Naturally, we want to see unions flourish in the auto industry -- that's what we are. We're unionists. We're trade unionists.
But you don't see it as a matter of survival.
Casteel: I don't see it as a survival factor for the UAW.
Mund: For the IG Metall, it's important. We don't get any additional members if Chattanooga unionizes, but it still is important because we fear that if operations remain unorganized, we may see a future of labor relations that we don't want back home. We work with strong unions back home, and if we allow union-free zones far elsewhere, that will sooner or later fall back on us. We have an intrinsic interest. It is solidarity, yes, but it is more than that.
Has this come up during the U.S.-E.U. trade talks?
Mund: Actually, we put from the labor side, that is both American and European, we put that in as a demand. Fair labor standards should be part of the mandate of the negotiations.
Is this model right for the other UAW organized plants?
King: If we could pass a codetermination law tomorrow, it would benefit all workers in the U.S.
But it's not something that you would push down from the top.
King: We do best practices in the UAW like any other organization. Ideas from Saturn went other places, because they worked. But it's ultimately the local union's decision.
Where do you stand in the Nissan campaign?
King: We are continuing to advocate. We have strong support from the Japanese autoworkers, from IG Metall. The Japanese should allow for a fair, democratic election process in Mississippi. They should make American managers live up to the global standards they say they support and believe in and endorse. We have got tremendous support globally all over; United Kingdom, Germany, France, Australia, South Africa, Brazil, you name it. In our global union family, people are really angry that Nissan is violating the human rights of workers in Mississippi and Tennessee.
Can that be overcome?
Where does the effort stand at Mercedes in Alabama?
King: Just that we really just deeply appreciate the support of the works council and IG Metall in our organizing efforts.