The Chattanooga Volkswagen employees’ decision last month to shun the United Auto Workers’ offer to unionize is sparking a long-overdue debate: If not through unions, then how should labor talk to management?For now, they can’t, according to James Sherk, writing for the Atlantic. Unions still have an effective monopoly on formal communication between labor and management. Under federal law employees can either unionize or shut up and take it:
Two decades ago, employees at Electromation Inc.’s Elkhart plant opposed plans to change their attendance bonuses. Surprised, Electromation formed joint worker-management “action committees” to solve workplace problems. The company committed to implementing committee solutions that did not cost too much. This gave workers a meaningful voice on the job while management fixed problems it didn’t know it had.Everyone was happy—except the government. The National Labor Relations Board stepped in and disbanded the committees.The National Labor Relations Act prohibits companies from “dominat[ing] or interfer[ing] with the formation or administration of any labor organization.” Congress wanted to prevent businesses from setting up fake “company unions” to fend off organizing drives. But that broad prohibition also proscribed Electromation’s action committees. In fact, it prohibits almost any formal employee voice on the job outside of collective bargaining with a union.
In other words, federal policy is to prohibit non-union forms of collective bargaining. This may have been sound policy across one span of time; it certainly isn’t now. Private sector union membership has dipped below 7 percent of the U.S. labor force. As the Chattanooga vote showed us, sometimes employees don’t want to unionize, even when that’s exactly what management wants. Prohibiting employees from representing themselves to management in the forms and format they choose is about as anti-worker as you can get.The Atlantic piece notes that Volkswagen’s German factories have very effective “work councils,” which allow employees to directly discuss pay, benefits, safety, and other concerns with management. The car company wanted to establish the same system in Chattanooga, but couldn’t without violating federal law. It was unions or nothing. Now, it’s nothing.