Industriegewerkschaft Metall was the largest labor union in Germany, and the largest union in any democratic country in the world, between 1950 and 2001. It represents workers in the motor vehicle industry. Half of the 20 seats on Volkswagen’s supervisory board are occupied by members of IG Metall.
Blue-collar and white-collar workers are represented in a works council. This is an integral part of Volkswagen’s corporate structure and gives workers a say in plant and company operations. This system of joint decision-making among employer, workers, and works council – known as Mitbestimmung – is accompanied by the usual negotiations between IG Metall and management over wages and benefits.
Berthold Huber, the former head of IG Metall, says Mitbestimmung keeps an eye on the system as a whole – the health of industrial employers as well as workers. “If you give people rights, they take on responsibility – that’s what Mitbestimmung has taught us,” he says.
IG Metall wants to establish a works council at the Volkswagen plant in Chattanooga, Tennessee, and has joined with the United Auto Workers to bring this about. The hurdle for the unions is that US labor law does not allow for company-sponsored unions. In order to have anything like a works council in the United States the company has to operate in conjunction with a labor union. Hence the push to organize workers at the plant in Chattanooga.
The UAW says that a majority of the workers at Chattanooga have signed cards supporting unionization. Some of the workers have said that the UAW and Volkswagen acted unlawfully in the solicitation and handling of authorization cards and filed a complaint with the National Labor Relations Board. The NLRB just determined, however, that neither organization violated US labor laws in their unionization push.
Volkswagen said in a statement that the decision by the NLRB confirms its legal position. It also stated:
Furthermore, we wish to reiterate that as a general principle, Volkswagen supports the right of employees to representation at all its plants and is in favor of good cooperation with the trade union or unions represented at its plants….For this reason, Volkswagen is currently working on an innovative model for the representation of employees’ interests which will be suitable for the USA. This model will be based on positive experience in Germany and other countries where the Volkswagen Group is active.
Naturally not everyone is happy with what’s going on in Chattanooga. Business interests, Republican politicians, and anti-union organizations have been doing everything they can to stop unionization at the plant. Politicians say that if the UAW prevails it would hurt the state’s business climate. They want Volkswagen to disregard the card signings and insist on a secret ballot election instead.
If the UAW is successful, it would be the union’s first victory at organizing a foreign-owned assembly plant in the South in 30 years of trying.
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