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."