Why a Foreign Car Maker Might Be About to Say Yes to a U.S. Union

Thanks to pressure back in Germany, the United Auto Workers are on the verge of unionizing a Volkswagen plant in Tennessee, and making labor history in the process. 

Lately, the only battles labor unions have seemed capable of winning in the private sector have been PR battles. McDonald's workers go on strike for a day to raise awareness about low wages? That counts as progress. A few Walmart workers walk out in protest on Black Friday, only to be casually ignored by the hoards of shoppers racing for waffle irons? Well, at least they nabbed a few headlines. 

However, something a bit different, a bit more tangibly significant, appears to going on in the auto industry right now.

The United Auto Workers may well be on the verge of accomplishing a longstanding and elusive goal: organizing a foreign car maker on American soil. This week, its leaders reported that more than half the workers at Volkswagen's manufacturing plant in Chattanooga, Tennessee had signed cards favoring union representation. As a next step, Volkswagen could simply choose to recognize the UAW without a fight, or it could force a certification election through the National Labor Relations Board. Negotiations between the two sides are ongoing, but the union seems to have at least some momentum.

If the UAW does prevail, it will be a camper-sized milestone for the auto industry. The once-mighty but long fading union has never successfully organized a factory owned entirely by a foreign car maker. And with its finances wobbling thanks to membership declines, many believe that cracking transplants like Volkswagen, Nissan, and Toyota has become a do or die task. Union President Bob King put it bleakly in a 2011 speech, telling the crowd: "If we don't organize these transnationals, I don't think there's a long-term future for the UAW, I really don't."

So why is this drive succeeding where other have failed? As Matt Yglesias has written, it's largely because Volkswagen is a German company. Whereas labor management relations in the United States tend to be treated as a light form of trench warfare, in Germany, workers are given a very strong say over company decision making, in part because their representatives sit on corporate supervisory boards, which are akin to American boards of directors. In the case of Volkswagen, members of the labor contingent that makes up half its board have taken a stand, stating that they won't support a potentially major expansion of the Chattanooga plant unless it adopts a German-style works council.

What's a works council, you ask? Not a labor union, to start. In Germany, unions deal with collective bargaining. The works council, meanwhile, meets with management to talk about issues like vacation time, workplace safety, and ways to make production more efficient, while sending delegates to the all important supervisory board. The Chattanooga plant is Volkswagen's only facility without such a body. 

But here's the catch: under U.S. labor law, companies can only have a works council if employees are represented by an outside labor union.  Hence, thanks to pressure from its workers back at home, Volkswagen America is now considering crossing the event horizon of full on unionization. 

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Jordan Weissmann is a senior associate editor at The Atlantic.

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