Volkswagen Declares War against Works Council and German Union
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.
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.
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“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.”