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German-style work council in peril at Chattanooga VW plant?

April 24th, 2015  |  Pamela Wolf

The German-style “work council” is once again drawing attention amid media reports that United Auto Workers Local 42 is either seeking or about to seek recognition as the exclusive bargaining agent of employees at the Volkswagen Plant in Chattanooga. Local 42’s president said that more than 50 percent of employees have signed authorization cards that would permit the German automaker to recognize the union as the exclusive bargaining agent of blue collar workers at the plant, according to the Times Free Press. If that happens, the first American experiment with European-style work councils may end up with a less-than stellar score.

In July 2014, following a high-profile union election defeat in an area of the country that has not taken well to unions, the UAW announced the formation of Local 42. During the election campaign there were charges that VW and the union had struck a deal in advance that would put the UAW in the bargaining seat. According to the UAW, Local 42 was organized by VW workers with the goal of giving employees a voice in the workplace through the VW works council. It collects no dues and does not operate as a traditional union.

Representative engagement. In December 2014, Local 42 garnered enough employee support to become recognized under Level 3—the highest level— of Volkswagen’s Community Organization Engagement (COE) policy.

To be eligible to engage with the company, an organization must “exist for the primary purpose of representing employees and their interests to employers consistent with the National Labor Relations Act.” Access to management depends upon levels of employee support for the organization:

  • Organizations with greater than 15-percent support of employees in the relevant employee group (Level 1) may use employer-provided space once each month for internal employee meetings on nonwork time; may post announcements in company-designated locations; and employee-only organizational representatives may meet monthly with VW HR “to present topics that are of general interest to their membership.” 
  • Organizations with greater than 30-percent support (Level 2) may do all of the above, plus increase their meeting times on the employer’s premises to once per week; invite external representatives to meet on-site (again on nonwork time) once monthly; post materials on a “branded” or dedicated posting location; and meet quarterly with a member of the Chattanooga Executive Committee. 
  • Since access or engagement opportunities are cumulative, organizations with greater than 45-percent support (Level 3) may additionally meet on-site (on nonwork time) “as reasonably needed;” and meet biweekly with HR and monthly with the Chattanooga Executive Committee.

Rival union. In February 2015, the American Council of Employees (ACE) was verified at Level 1 under the COE policy. According to some media reports, ACE is a group that may have been backed by business and political interests. However, ACE calls itself “an independent employee council created to ensure that all VW Chattanooga employees have a voice on the Volkswagen Global Works Council.” The organization also says that it is a local, not national, group that has no outside influence or political agenda.

ACE officials are not happy with reports that Local 42 is seeking recognition through authorization cards instead of by secret ballot election, according to the Chattanoogan. If the reports are true, they may give new life to earlier charges of a deal between VW and the UAW.

Volkswagen’s reaction. The German automaker offered little that would shed light on these reported developments: “Volkswagen Chattanooga management have been meeting regularly with UAW Local 42 and the American Council of Employees, according to the level of support they have achieved within the workforce as determined by our Community Organization Engagement policy,” a VW representative told Employment Law Daily. “The policy has been an effective way to maintain dialog with each of the groups, and we intend to continue with the COE policy at this time.”

Because the meetings under the policy are internal, the VW representative could not comment on any of the topics discussed.

Notably, the UAW’s Local 112, undeniably similar to a German-style work council, was formed in October 2014 to provide representation for workers at a Mercedes-Benz U.S. International (MBUSI) assembly plant in Vance, Alabama, near Tuscaloosa.

The UAW declined to comment to Employment Law Daily on behalf the union or Local 42’s president.