Labor law: VW vote shouldn’t nix promising idea

Workers assembled Passats at the Volkswagen plant in Chattanooga, Tenn.
AP/file 2013
Workers assembled Passats at the Volkswagen plant in Chattanooga, Tenn.

No one came out looking good in the high-profile unionization drive that ended in Chattanooga, Tenn., last week. The United Auto Workers, which hoped to use the election at a Volkswagen plant to establish a beachhead in the South, lost on a narrow vote. Local politicians meddled irresponsibly, threatening to retaliate against the plant if workers chose to unionize. And the German carmaker saw its effort to establish an innovative new labor organization at the Chattanooga factory stymied.

Volkswagen should keep pushing the idea of a works council, which could be a model for many other US factories. Such councils, which seek to improve both productivity and workplace conditions, are common in Germany, but it’s unclear whether American labor law allows the councils in nonunion workplaces. Volkswagen’s lawyers concluded it doesn’t; that’s why the company didn’t fight the unionization push, as most American firms would have.

Union or no union, such councils should be explicitly allowed in the United States, so long as they don’t interfere with workers’ right to organize. In Germany, unions and works councils coexist. And if the Chattanooga plant eventually gets one of the councils, and workers are dissatisfied with the results, there’s nothing to stop the UAW from trying again.