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Death of Blue
Moving Beyond Unions

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.

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  • PKCasimir

    First of all, VW’s sales figures in the US are abysmal and declining by double digits monthly. It’s US operations are totally mismanaged; for example, VW is selling a version of its Golf model that is a generation behind the version available to the rest of the world. VW America’s major problem is German management. Unlike BMW, it has not adapted to the US market’s idiosyncrasies. German engineers, for example, still can’t understand why Americans demand cup holders in their cars. The drive for a management council in VW’s Tennessee plant has been driven by ferocious pressure from German unions on VW in Germany who, in turn, is pressuring VW America. The management/union relationship at the Tennessee plant has nothing to do with VW’s lousy sales in the US. VW could bring in any type of council it wanted, but it won’t improve sales or the quality of their cars. The worker-management councils are not the real issue for VW in the US.

    • Andrew Allison

      Actually, VW’s US sales decreased by 7% in the whole of 2013. Not stellar performance in a market which grew 8%, but completely irrelevant to the topic which is whether Unions should have the sole power to represent workers.

      • PKCasimir

        VW’s motivation in attempting to get A worker/management council in their Tennessee plant is totally relevant. The fact that VW management made the council the most important issue in its US plant demonstrates just how out of touch the are with the American market and the issue of a council is totally irrelevant to VW’s success or failure in the US market.
        While VW management was concentrating on the struggle in its Tennessee plant, VW sales in the US decreased by 13%. This is a management at sea.

  • gabrielsyme

    If VW was really invested in getting a worker council going in Chattanooga, they should help fund a constitutional challenge to the law. It’s understandable that the law should prohibit management-controlled quasi-unions, but it’s an affront to freedom of speech and association if the workers wish to organise themselves outside of a labour union structure in order to better communicate with their employers. That isn’t employer-domination, it’s fully consenting workers collaborating with each other.

  • Ghosts of Benghazi

    Technology and a shrinking global workforce will find balance with the expulsion of unions(liberal operatives)….

  • Bill_Woods

    Give every employee one share of stock, and then hold mini stockholders’ meetings?

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