Volkswagen Declares War against Works Council and German Union

Group of workers in matching green T-shirts outside the plant

Pro-union night shift workers prepared to walk into the plant together the night before voting began. Photo: Chris Brooks

A top employee representative in Volkswagen’s Global Works Council was denied entry into the company’s Chattanooga, Tennessee, factory today as the union election began.

The plant’s 1,700 eligible hourly employees began voting this morning on whether to form a union with the United Auto Workers. The results will be announced Friday night.

According to a statement from the Global Works Council, Johan Järvklo arrived at the plant to be an election observer. Workers confirmed that he was booted.

In VW plants in Germany and worldwide, the works council is a vehicle for employee representatives to meet with management to hash out shop floor issues, such as production goals, working conditions, and other issues internal to the running of the plant. (See box.)

“I urge the company to finally be neutral in these democratic elections, as promised,” said Global Works Council President Bernd Osterloh in a statement.

Denying Järvklo entry is the latest act of aggression in an escalating campaign by Volkswagen management to crush the union drive.

“I am appalled and outraged by the behavior of the VW management in Chattanooga,” said Hartwig Erb, a representative of IG Metall Wolfsburg, in a press statement.

Stephan Krull, a retired Volkswagen worker and activist in the German union IG Metall who served on the works council at the company’s flagship plant, described the decision to deny Järvklo entry into the plant as “a frontal attack on the trade unions as a whole.”

CEO CLAIMS PLANT IS ‘MOST DEMOCRATIC’ IN WORLD

In a final anti-union push before workers vote on whether to unionize, the recently installed Chattanooga VW CEO Frank Fischer trashed the United Auto Workers and made the surreal claim that the company’s sole U.S. factory is “the most democratic” manufacturing plant in the world, according to audio obtained by Labor Notes.

Fischer made the comments in two plant-wide anti-union meetings on Monday, one for production employees on the morning shift and another for those working nights.

Workers were forced to attend the meeting. On the way in, they were handed Chick-fil-A sandwiches. On the way out, members of the in-plant anti-union group Southern Momentum were on hand passing out water bottles with anti-UAW stickers.

According to workers in attendance, security guards were blocking the exits and workers were told that if they left they would receive an attendance “point,” which counts against their quarterly bonus.

“Nothing like intimidation and free chicken sandwiches,” said one worker who asked not to be identified out of fear of retaliation from management.



Workers who attended the mandatory anti-union meeting led by CEO Frank Fischer were handed bottles with anti-union stickers and chicken sandwiches.

VW is behaving like any U.S. corporation trying to fight off a union drive.

What’s notable is that the company has continued to reassure the leaders of its Global Works Council that it is doing nothing of the sort.

ATTACKS UNION, CLAIMS NEUTRALITY

Fischer claimed that Volkswagen is “neutral, but we also want you to know the facts” before launching into an anti-union diatribe.

One of his facts was that the UAW membership rolls shrank last year. Fischer implied that reflected job loss. But it’s likely that a more significant factor in the drop was workers dropping their union membership now that Michigan is “right to work.”

Following the usual employer script, he characterized the union as an outsider and a third party.

“Do you think that a union based and running commercials with a 313 area code is really caring about what is happening with us here in the South?” Fischer said in his thick German accent.

“A ‘yes’ stands for you communicating via the union with your company. A ‘no’ stands for direct communication with us.”

These are standard anti-union talking points, likely scripted by Littler Mendelson, the union-busting firm that VW has hired.

In both speeches, Fischer admitted that he had been brought over from Germany and reinstalled as acting CEO of the plant in reaction to the UAW organizing drive. “I am over here because of the election,” he told workers.

The company had previously denied that giving the plant’s former CEO Antonio Pinto the boot was related to the union drive, even though eliminating an unpopular boss is another common union-busting tactic.

SLAMS WORKS COUNCILS

Works council members are elected by the non-management workforce, both blue and white collar, and paid by management. This arrangement is illegal under U.S. labor law, which outlaws “company-dominated labor organizations” and bars businesses from contributing “financial or other support” to labor groups.

During the union drive here five years ago, the UAW and VW were jointly promoting the idea of a works council in the Chattanooga plant. Its creation would have been subject to collective bargaining after workers unionized—and it would be legal only if paired with a union independent of management.

After the union vote failed, VW announced a weak substitute—an “engagement” plan for nonbinding talks between labor and management.

Since then, VW’s Global Works Council has continued to champion the works council model for employee representation at the Chattanooga plant.

On June 6, Osterloh and Järvklo sent a letter to the pro-union workers at the Chattanooga plant, encouraging them to “get a mandate of the workforce by achieving a convincing election result for the UAW.”

Osterloh and Järvklo also claimed the Global Works Council was working to ensure that there would be “neutral behavior of the company-side” and that “any attacks of democratic rights of the workforce to influence the election will not take place again.”

Apparently Fischer didn’t get the memo. Not only did the CEO slam the union, but he also downplayed the role and function of the Global Works Council.

“When you have a works council, and the works council and management are sitting together, there is a limited number of people and they make the decision,” Fischer told the night shift.

Help Put the Movement Back in the Labor Movement

Become a Labor Notes Monthly Sustaining Donor

Monthly donors receive a free "Fight the Boss, Build the Union" T-shirt and a subscription to our magazine. Donate Now. »

“This is why to my experience, this plant here in Chattanooga is the most democratic one I know of in the Volkswagen world and maybe even more worldwide. Because union plants don’t vote, nonunion plants also don’t vote, but you are allowed to vote.”

FISCHER’S TRUE COLORS?

Fischer joined the Volkswagen Group in 1991 and has worked in plants in Wolfsburg, Emden, and Braunschweig before coming to work in Chattanooga in 2008 to oversee the launch of the Tennessee factory. Fischer returned to Germany in 2014 and was brought back to Chattanooga last month for the union election.

“In Germany, Frank Fischer has always strived for a good relationship with the works councils,” wrote Stephan Krull in an email to Labor Notes.

But Krull believes that Fischer’s attitude towards unions and works councils in Germany was “tactical” and that his actual “fundamental convictions” are becoming “clear in Chattanooga in the fight against the UAW.”

Like many European companies, Volkswagen management is now fully embracing the hardcore anti-union environment in the United States—while claiming to be neutral and promote “democracy” for workers.

“A factory in which there is no union representation is at the mercy of arbitrariness or the generosity of the management,” Krull wrote.

Fischer “shares this hostile attitude towards the democratic participation and the social rights of the employees with the owners—Wolfgang Porsche, Ferdinand Piëch—and the board, Herbert Diess and others,” wrote Krull.

NOT BY A LONG SHOT

Is Fischer accurate when he characterizes the Chattanooga plant as more democratic than other plants with unions and works councils?

Not at all, according to Stephen Silvia, a scholar on Volkswagen and professor at American University.

“VW Chattanooga plant is not [even] the most democratic factory in the Volkswagen Group,” Silvia wrote in an email to Labor Notes.

“All Volkswagen factories in Europe have autonomous collective bargaining,” Silvia wrote. “Many have extensive codetermination rights anchored in law.

“For example, Volkswagen management bargains with the German metalworkers union, IG Metall, over compensation and job classifications. IG Metall can strike if negotiations reach an impasse.

“In Germany, mass layoffs and the introduction of new technologies in a workplace require works council approval. Half of the members of VW’s supervisory board are employee representatives.

“Volkswagen Chattanooga, in contrast, simply has a ‘community organization engagement’ policy, which Volkswagen management created unilaterally. COE is solely a forum for periodic non-binding discussions between management and qualifying employee organizations in the plant.

“In Europe, this would be called ‘information and consultation,’ and a quite minimal version of it, at that. It falls far short of codetermination.”

What’s a Works Council?

During the first union drive at the Chattanooga plant in 2014, when the UAW and VW were proposing to import the works council model from German to Tennessee, former Labor Notes editor Jane Slaughter wrote this explanation of what a works council is. –Eds.

It’s not a “workers’ council.” The word “works” here means “factory” or “facility.” In English we use the word in names like the Bath Iron Works, a big shipbuilding facility in Maine.

Works councils were established in Germany through a 1920 law, specifically as an alternative to the workers’ councils that had sprung up in many factories after World War I. Workers attempted to take direct democratic control of the plants through the workers’ councils, on their way to a revolution that would take over the government. That uprising was thwarted.

The works councils, then, were the German government’s attempt at pacifying militant workers. There were mass demonstrations by workers who opposed the works councils law, charging it would hinder workers’ independent organization. Forty-two were killed by police and a state of emergency was declared, but the law went into effect.

The works councils were abolished by the Nazis but reinstated after World War II under the military government of the United States and its allies.

ELECTED COUNCILS

Today, German works councils are elected by all non-management employees of an enterprise, blue-collar and white-collar. In an auto plant, the union, IG Metall, will put forward a slate of candidates, and most workers will vote for it. By law, the works council is independent of the union, but most members of the works council are union members, together with a few representatives of “confidential employees.”

The council’s explicit charge is to work for the interests of both workers and company. Members must keep “the peace in the establishment.” They may not lead a strike. Their job is to find non-conflictual ways of dealing with new technologies, reorganization of jobs, and plant closings, and they bargain with management over these issues.

But worker representation is actually split into two parts. While the works council deals with shop floor issues, bargaining over wages is done at the industry level by the union, with, in the past, one standard wage pattern for an industry.

Since the 1980s, though, union standards have been weakened as works councils very often have accepted management’s plans for lean production and permitted management to play off workers in different workplaces against each other.

Works councils’ legal obligation to cooperate with the management of their own company was a solid foundation for such whipsawing, and works councils backed the opening of industry-wide contracts to allow company-specific concessions on wages and hours.

A WORKS COUNCIL AT GM

Wolfgang Schaumberg was a works council member in GM’s Opel plant in Bochum, Germany, for 25 years. He was elected on a slate running in opposition to the official union slate.

He gives an example of how the works council worked alongside the union contract: The IG Metall national agreement of 1984 reduced the work week to 35 hours, to be achieved over the course of 11 years. How to set up the new time off was the task of the works council at each plant. In the Bochum plant in 1995, the majority of the works council, and GM management, wanted to keep working eight hours a day but take days off during the year. But opposition members on the works council organized a rank-and-file vote, which resulted in a work day of 7.5 hours, 37.5 a week, with the rest of the reduction in days off.

As head of the council’s dismissals committee, it was Schaumberg’s job to bargain with management to defend fired workers. His description of a typical day sounds much like that of a full-time shop floor union rep in the U.S.: meetings with management, talking with workers about what the works council can and cannot do.

While right-wing works council members made a priority of their charge to work for the good of the company, opposition members like Schaumberg would organize collective actions like coming together to the works council office to press their demands or grievances; “we often stayed in or in front of the office longer than the break time,” he said.

Much like union shop floor reps, “it depends on their political position how works council members use their rights and their possibility to be free from work all the day,” Schaumberg noted—and even a righteous member has to be careful not to get too cozy. “The job of works council members is dangerous: you get lots of privileges.”

—Jane Slaughter