eyes on the U.S.

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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Saving The Planet Is Really A Question Of Dopamine

Our carelessness toward the environment could be due, in part, to the functioning of a very primitive area of our brain: the striatum.

Ad scuba-diver and brain coral

Stefano Lupieri

PARIS — Almost every week, a new scientific study alerts us to the degradation of the environment. And yet, we continue not to change anything fundamental in our systems of production and habits of consumption. Are we all suffering from blindness, or poisoned by denial?

In his popular books Le Bug humain (The Human Bug) and Où est le sens? (Where is the Sense?), Sébastien Bohler, a journalist in neuroscience and psychology, provides a much more rational explanation: The mechanism responsible for our propensity to destroy our natural environment is in fact a small, very deep and very primitive structure of our brain called the striatum.

This regulator of human motivation seems to have been programmed to favor behaviors that ensure the survival of the species.

Addictions to sex and social media

Since the dawn of humanity, gathering information about our environment, feeding ourselves, ensuring the transmission of our genes through sexual intercourse and asserting our social status have all been rewarded with a shot of dopamine, the 'pleasure hormone.'

Nothing has changed since then; except that, in our society of excess, there is no limit to the satisfaction of these needs. This leads to the overconsumption of food and addictions to everything from sex to social media — which together account for much of the world's destructive agricultural and energy practices.

No matter how much we realize that this is leading to our downfall, we can't help but relapse because we are prisoners of the dopamine pump in the striatum, which cannot be switched off.

Transverse section of striatum from a structural MRI image

Lindsay Hanford and Geoff B Hall via Wikipedia

Tweaking genetics 

According to Bohler, the only way out is to encourage the emergence of new values of sobriety, altruism and slowness. If adopted, these more sustainable notions could be recognized by the striatum as new sources of dopamine reward. But there's the challenge of promoting inspiring stories that infuse them with value.

Take the photo-collage exhibition "J'agis ici... et je m'y colle" ("I'm taking action here... and I'm sticking to it"), a collection of life-size portraits of residents committed to the energy transition, displayed on the walls of the French coastal city of La Rochelle.

Backed by the French National Center for Street Arts, photographer Martin Charpentier may be employing artistic techniques, but he's also tinkering with neuroscience in the process.

Les Echos
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