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Global Labor Rights Tested At Tennessee VW Plant

Chattanooga Honk Honk
Chattanooga Honk Honk
Nikolaus Piper

NEW YORK — There is no German-style "works council" for employees at Volkswagen USA. Then, last week, 1,500 workers of the Volkswagen Chattanooga Assembly Plant, in Tennessee, voted by secret ballot against being represented by the United Auto Workers (UAW). Without membership of that union, setting up a works council is not possible under American law.

For Volkswagen as a company the vote means relatively little — but it means a great deal in terms of labor relations in American industry. And it’s also a setback for the chair of the VW works council back at the German company's headquarters in Wolfsburg, who had been heavily invested in the "Works Council in Chattanooga" project, and now finds himself without a partner in the U.S.

It’s mainly a resounding defeat for the UAW, one of the last relevant traditional industry unions in the U.S. President Bob King knew what the issue was with VW: If the union wants to stay relevant at a national level in the future it must be capable of organizing not only General Motors, Ford and Chrysler but also the until now union-less production sites of foreign manufacturers like VW, BMW, Daimler and Toyota that are mostly located in the southern states.

Don't rock the boat

But if it doesn’t work at VW, where will it work? The model of the works council, which exists in other forms in Europe, is especially widespread in Germany, where local boards comprised of both employees and management implement national labor agreements in a way that makes sense at their particular workplace.

In the past few weeks Republican politicians and conservative groups spent a lot of money on an anti-UAW offensive, but the union’s chances remained relatively good before the vote. Unlike the situation at other plants, VW management was not fighting the union and officially took a neutral stance towards the vote, and a rather friendly unofficial line.

The workers nevertheless decided they didn’t want the union; they feared the build-up of an atmosphere of hostility and the loss of jobs if the union were to prevail; whereas they presently feel decently treated — and paid — at VW.

The Chattanooga case shows with brutal clarity that the American model of the scrappy industry union has seen its day — and this despite the growing anger of Americans at the country’s extreme economic inequality. Still relevant are unions for firefighters, police officers, teachers and other public sector employees whose jobs are relatively secure. In future-oriented areas like Silicon Valley unions play no role at all, and they’ve had to step back from traditional industrial sectors.

But that doesn’t mean that the German works council model has become uninteresting for the Americans. On the contrary. During the big showdown in Chattanooga, both conservatives and progressives showed broad sympathy for the idea of cooperative labor relations in companies. With regard to the works council, the UAW explicitly presented itself as a reformed organization that had forsworn the bellicose stances of the past. But the claim was put forward too late to be credible.

If IG Metall and the Wolfsburg works councils are serious about their model, then in the future they should spend less energy lobbying for German support and focus more on developing models with American experts to find a way for a works council to be possible under existing legal stipulations.

The regulation that says that a works council is only possible when the company belongs to a union protects workers was meant to hinder the creation of bodies that might actually favor employers. The works council goal can surely be realized without sacrificing cooperative labor relations. It could be that the Chattanooga vote opens the road to genuine reform in America.

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Geopolitics

Utter Pessimism, What Israelis And Palestinians Share In Common

Right now, according to a joint survey of Israelis and Palestinians, hopes for a peaceful solution of coexistence simply don't exist. The recent spate of violence is confirmation of the deepest kind of pessimism on both sides for any solution other than domination of the other.

An old Palestinian protester waves Palestinian flag while he confronts the Israeli soldiers during the demonstration against Israeli settlements in the village of Beit Dajan near the West Bank city of Nablus.

A Palestinian protester confronts Israeli soldiers during the demonstration against Israeli settlements in the West Bank village of Beit Dajan on Jan. 6.

Pierre Haski

-Analysis-

PARIS — Just before the latest outbreak of violence between Israelis and Palestinians, a survey of public opinion among the two peoples provided a key to understanding the current situation unfolding before our eyes.

It was a joint study, entitled "Palestinian-Israeli Pulse", carried out by two research centers, one Israeli, the other Palestinian, which for years have been regularly asking the same questions to both sides.

The result is disastrous: not only is the support for the two-state solution — Israel and Palestine side by side — at its lowest point in two decades, but there is now a significant share of opinion on both sides that favors a "non-democratic" solution, i.e., a single state controlled by either the Israelis or Palestinians.

This captures the absolute sense of pessimism commonly felt regarding the chances of the two-state option ever being realized, which currently appears to be our grim reality today. But the results are also an expression of the growing acceptance on both sides that it is inconceivable for either state to live without dominating the other — and therefore impossible to live in peace.

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