FRANKFURT, Germany — The faceoff between Volkswagen and the United Auto Workers over organizing the company’s new plant in Tennessee is rapidly becoming a global clash of cultures.
For months, the UAW has been trying hard to get recognition by Volkswagen to represent workers at its prized assembly plant in Chattanooga, Tenn.
The effort has unleashed a groundswell of pro- and anti- union sentiment. While some workers are eager for the UAW to come in, state officials and right-to-work groups are just as determined to stop Detroit’s brand of unionism.
Now Volkswagen and its German labor leaders are proposing a solution that is commonplace in Europe but has yet to be tried in the U.S. auto industry.
The senior labor representative at Volkswagen in Germany, Bernd Osterloh, is planning a trip to the United States to suggest a compromise in what has become a heated battle over the UAW’s relentless drive to organize a foreign-owned auto plant in the American South.
He is expected to push for a German-style works council in the plant — a committee of hourly and salaried employees that gives labor a voice at the management table.
A works council is not like an U.S. union, which can negotiate contracts and authorize strikes. But it does have the advantage of being a familiar form of labor relations for a German car company like VW.
The larger question is whether a works council can satisfy employees and politicians in Tennessee — and give the UAW a foothold in the growing Southern auto industry.
One open question in Chattanooga is whether the 1,600 or so hourly workers at the VW factory would need to belong to a union like the UAW to join a works council.
The UAW said it would welcome a works council, but said that it would be legal only if a majority of workers had opted for a union. And many labor experts agree.
“If the company set up a representation system like that, a union would challenge it and they could probably win their argument that it’s a company-dominated union,” said Richard Hurd, a professor of industrial and labor relations at Cornell University. Such a union set up by the company would violate U.S. labor law, he said.
In Germany, works councils are not the same as unions, although the two often cooperate. The councils, whose members are elected by employees, have a right to be consulted on job cuts or other decisions about working conditions. They are barred by law from negotiating over wages. That is the prerogative of labor unions, which typically bargain on an industrywide basis.
In Germany, there is also no clear demarcation between unionized and nonunionized companies. Any person can join a union. The union acquires power only if enough employees join to form a critical mass able to call a strike or otherwise exert pressure on management.
At all but the smallest German companies, workers can elect committees that have a right to weigh in on policies that affect working conditions. At large companies, worker representatives sit on supervisory boards that choose the chief executive and approve major decisions. If a company has at least 200 employees, it must pay the salary of a full-time worker representative.