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German-style works council coming to Chattanooga?

September 13th, 2013  |  David Stephanides

The United Auto Workers issued a statement on September 6 regarding its discussions about representation and a “works council” for Volkswagen’s new plant in Chattanooga, Tennessee. If fruitful, the discussions may lead to the introduction of a new labor relations model in the United States.

The term “works council” is foreign to U.S. labor law. According to WikiPedia, a works council is a “shop-floor organization including workers and executives that functions as local/firm-level complement to national labor negotiations. Works councils exist with different names in a variety of related forms in a number of European countries. Works councils safeguards employees’ collective interests and have three primary duties:

  1. The duty to work cooperatively and in good faith with trade unions and the employer
  2. The duty to preserve peace in the workplace. This means that it cannot initiate any form of industrial action to exert pressure on the employer.
  3. The duty to defend the principle of equal treatment with regard to age, and the personal development of staff members.

The works council has various rights according to the German Works Constitution Act, none of which are executive in nature. Only the employer can implement measures within the business unit, such as hiring, dismissal, operational changes, etc. Some of the rights of the work council include:

  1. Information Rights: The works council has a general right to be kept informed in detail and without delay in keeping its duties under the Works Constitution Act. The employer is obliged to give the works council a hearing before reaching a decision on certain matters and to take its arguments into account. However, management is not bound to accept these arguments. Most important is the right to be heard before every dismissal and informed of all reasons of the dismissal.
  2. Consultation Rights: The works council has the right to be consulted on such matters as workplace design and equipment, personnel planning, and vocational training. Again, the employer is not obliged to implement the works council’s proposals.
  3. Co-determination Rights: The most far-reaching rights of the works council are those of co-determination, which mean that measures cannot take effect until the works council’s approval is granted. Any social, personnel-related, and economic measures planned by the employer require the works council’s approval before they can be implemented.

According to Associated Press, the UAW’s regional director responsible for Tennessee, Gary Casteel, said September 13 that workers at the plant have signed authorization cards including a statement about wanting to join VW’s global works council and supporting cooperative and collaborative relations with the company.  In Germany, unions bargain for wages, while works councils weigh in on job security, safety and other plant-specific matters. So how the UAW’s role would intermesh with a works council is at this point somewhat unclear, but would be totally different from established relationships with U.S. automakers.