Detail of UAW infographic on the Chattanooga VW Works Council.
Could the USA’s first Works Council happen in Chattanooga?
This week, workers at the Volkswagen plant in Chattanooga, Tennessee, have the chance to create labour movement and industrial relations history by voting to set up the first Works Council in the USA. If they do, it could start a trend towards better workplace relations and union involvement in European subsidiaries across the US which might even spread into US-owned companies.
The implications shouldn’t be overstated. This is just one car plant, after all. But as well as changing the way the US has practiced industrial relations for well over a century, it could also provide the basis for union support for the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) or severely – perhaps fatally – undermine it. It isn’t just unions on both sides of the Atlantic pressing for this. When I asked the leader of the Socialists and Democrats in the European Parliament, Hannes Swoboda MEP, last week “can we use TTIP to extend the European right for workers to have a voice (eg works councils) to the US?” he replied on twitter:
“That’s our aim – tell your fellow trade unionists in the US!”
No pressure then…
Volkswagen has a long history of social partnership in Germany, as highlighted by Tim Page last year, and the company has signed a Global Framework Agreement with global union federation IndustriALL. But like many European companies with subsidiaries in the United States, VW has adopted a more traditional, confrontational approach to unionisation there. This began to change last year when US car workers’ union the UAW initiated a joint unionisation drive with German manufacturing union IG Metall, including a joint union office in Chattanooga to encourage car workers to join the union. IG Metall’s role has been critical in encouraging a more open approach to the UAW from the plant management in Tennessee.
This is an acid test for the TTIP, whose architects want it to go far further than merely reduce tariffs (already low) between the USA and the EU. Whenever they argue for an ‘ambitious’ trade deal, they’re normally asking for consumer, environmental or worker protections to be watered down. But the AFLCIO and the ETUC want to see workers’ rights harmonised upwards, instead, and the right to a voice is the key demand.
The importance of this campaign has not, of course, been lost on opponents of trade unions in the USA, with the anti-union Republican Tennessee Senator Bob Corker and several suspiciously well-funded ‘worker advocacy’ groups (often run out of employers’ law firms, or funded by right-wing ideologues such as the Koch brothers) up in arms. Volkswagen’s management in Tennessee maintain that the decision should be taken by the workforce without outside agitators getting involved – the sort of employer neutrality you’d expect in Germany, but which is rare in the Southern US!
So, the workforce at VW in Chattanooga will vote this week with the rest of the world watching, as if they were the electorate of an emerging economy or newly democratised state. They may be both.