CHATTANOOGA - The United Auto Workers may be on the verge of realizing a goal that has eluded the union for more than 30 years: organizing the workers at one of the South's foreign-owned auto plants.
The union, whose membership has declined to about 380,000 from 1.5 million in 1979, is in friendly talks with the German automaker Volkswagen about organizing the company's new Chattanooga plant, which has about 3,000 assembly workers.
Its goal is to gain a foothold in the South by bringing one automaker into the union fold, with the theory that other plants - including Nissan's in Smyrna and Decherd, Tenn. - might follow suit.
But the approach the union is taking at VW is a novel one for U.S. automakers. Instead of the typical us-versus-them attitude that characterized the UAW during much of the 20th century, the union is embracing the German "works council" concept that proponents say creates more of a partnership than an adversarial relationship.
UAW officials have traveled to Volkswagen headquarters in Wolfsburg, Germany, where they say they have been warmly received by the automaker's managers and union leaders in discussions about setting up a works council in the Chattanooga plant.
Volkswagen's official position is that the Chattanooga workers have the right to choose whether they want to be represented by a union, and the company takes no stand on that either way.
As for the UAW, "We have great admiration for VW's integrity, and their business model and philosophy as it pertains to their workforce," said Gary Casteel, the Lebanon-based director of UAW's Region 8, which includes most of the South. "We look forward to any and all discussions that may develop."
How the councils work
In Germany, the right to set up works councils is guaranteed in the constitution and applies to companies with at least 15 employees. The councils include representatives chosen by blue- and white-collar workers, along with lower-ranking managers who do not have the power to hire or fire.
These councils have a say in most of the company's business decisions, including pay, benefits, working conditions and even what products are made and where they are manufactured, experts on the works councils say.
"My experience is that the councils work well in the German context because the members are elected by the whole workforce," said Lowell Turner, a professor of international and comparative labor at Cornell University. "They offer a worker voice, and they work in collaboration with the unions inside the workplace to talk about day-to-day problems and issues."
The councils are designed to "create a good balance, and give management more information about what's going on in the plant," Turner said. "German companies make better decisions because of it."
There's a key difference between Germany and the United States when it comes to setting up works councils: In Germany, they can exist even in plants that are not unionized. But U.S. labor law permits them only if a labor union has been recognized as the legal bargaining agent for the workers.
That means that even if the UAW and Volkswagen want a works council in Chattanooga, the workers would still have to agree to affiliate with the union to make it happen. The U.S. plant is the only one of Volkswagen's 62 worldwide production facilities without a union or a works council, but getting the necessary "50 percent plus one" votes the UAW needs to be recognized is an obstacle the union must overcome.
Giving workers say
The mood in the plant is moving toward acceptance of the union, though, some workers say. And Volkswagen's managers have largely taken a hands-off approach in dealing with union organizers, both from outside and within the employee ranks.
That's in stark contrast with the anti-union stance that Nissan's management has taken in attempts to organize its U.S. plants, where some employees say they're subjected to anti-union rhetoric and are afraid to speak out if they're pro-union.
"We're working for a very union-friendly company," said Eric DeLacy, 32, of Red Bank, who has worked in the VW paint shop for more than two years. "I've never experienced any kind of intimidation."
Volkswagen workers also don't have issues with pay and benefits that in the past have given unions an easy route to organizing.
"This is one of the better jobs in this area," said DeLacy, who previously worked as a correctional officer for Nashville-based CCA. "But there are ways it could be improved. The main thing is giving workers some say in what's going on."
David Gleeson, 42, of Hixson spent several years on the assembly line at the Mercedes-Benz plant in Vance, Ala., before taking a buyout and moving to Chattanooga to work at Volkswagen.
He had praise for Mercedes - another German automaker - as well as his current employer.
"Mercedes-Benz was a very decent place to work, even without a union," he said. "And I like it here at Volkswagen. It's a good place to work."
Although he's not convinced that a union is absolutely necessary at Volkswagen, Gleeson said he doesn't oppose it, either, as long as it's not the UAW of old.
"I do believe the old ways of the union are gone," he said. "It doesn't work that way anymore."
But workers are not getting the whole story in the UAW's push to sell itself through the works council idea, said Mark Mix, president of the National Right to Work Legal Defense Foundation.
"This talk of workplace councils is sort of a wink-and-a-nod," Mix said. "The UAW knows they can't do that without getting union recognition, but after that, only the union's bargaining team can speak for the workers. Under American labor law, the union has this exclusive bargaining power. Once you decide you don't want to be a member of the union, you no longer have any voice at all."
Mix's group this week offered free legal assistance to any Chattanooga Volkswagen workers who feel intimidated by union organizers, he said.
The group also wants to avoid allowing the UAW to organize the Chattanooga workers by using the so-called card-check process, by which the union can gain official recognition without an election, just by having at least 50 percent plus one of the workers sign cards saying they favor the union.
Under U.S. labor law, that can happen only if the company's management agrees to card check, Mix said. Otherwise, a secret-ballot election must be used.
"With card check, it's easier for the union because they can go door to door to workers' homes and ask them to sign the card," Mix said. "We want to make sure workers know their rights when someone comes to them with a card and pressures them to sign."
Whether a UAW victory in Chattanooga would help the union elsewhere in the South remains to be seen, but "I don't think we'll see them popping up in any aggressive manner," said Sujit CanagaRetna, senior fiscal analyst for the Council of State Governments in Atlanta and an expert on the Southern auto industry.
"The culture with VW and the unions is very different, not the sort of antagonistic, hostile relationship of the past," he said. "It's more of a collaboration, and a very different concept from what we have seen in the U.S."
Union representation at the Chattanooga plant also probably won't hurt efforts to lure more foreign auto plants to the South, CanagaRetna said.
"All of these Southern plants have been going through expansions and hiring more people, in contrast with the Midwest, where the Big Three (U.S. automakers) laid off tens of thousands during the recession," he said. "They're not going to be afraid to expand here."
As for whether the UAW will be successful, "I don't know what the chances are," Cornell's Turner said. "It comes down to getting a majority of the workers to sign on, and I would think this (works council idea) gives them a much better shot. But I know Tennessee is different from Detroit, and there is a stronger ideological opposition to unions. This is certainly a promising approach for the union, but what the workers of Chattanooga decide is up to them."
In the plant, the mood is "definitely pro-union," said paint-shop technician Mike Cantrell.
"Some people think it's the best job they ever had," said Cantrell, who holds an MBA and formerly owned a tax-software business. "Some were hairstylists, some nail technicians, some even teachers before they came here. But I believe about two-thirds of the workers favor the union. They want some type of stability, a way to bid on jobs, a voice in how things are done."