Unions coming to the South

Us vs. them.

Those words are behind a bevy of problems in U.S. culture and politics. They sum up how companies and labor unions too often position themselves, especially in the South. But labor relations just across the Georgia border at Volkswagen’s Chattanooga plant may be poised to break through that mindset.

Volkswagen has made “co-determination” an integral part of its business model. It means workers and management recognize their stake in the company’s success and work together. At Volkswagen’s plant in Germany, employees have a voice through a works council and voluntary representation by IG Metall, a union of 2.2 million auto, steel, electrical, textile, wood and plastics industry workers. Every major Volkswagen assembly facility in the world has union representation, except the Tennessee plant.

Volkswagen has opened the door to introducing this model of labor relations in Chattanooga and set a model for other companies moving to the South. In partnership with the UAW, the collaboration would form the first-ever works council in the U.S.

A works council with local representation gives workers a voice in the company’s success. It sets a new tone — swapping “us vs. them” for “we’re all in this together.” Under U.S. labor law, workers first choose representation by a union to establish the council because only a labor union has the right to negotiate with the employer on the workers’ behalf.

This proposal builds on a resurgence of positive employer-labor relations already taking shape. Collaborative negotiations between the UAW and automakers yielded a combined $23.7 billion from Chrysler, GM and Ford to invest in U.S. plants, jobs and innovation post-recession.

New relationships with transnational corporations may be shaking up old mindsets, but unions are driving middle-class growth and tackling inequality.

Consider GM’s assembly plant in Spring Hill, Tenn. The plant closed in 2009 as part of GM’s bankruptcy, but through collective bargaining, it reopened, with more than $400 million invested for expanded production. That kind of investment is healthy. It creates positive employer-labor relations.

Global representation means the Chattanooga plant would have leverage to advocate for bringing more jobs to the South, strengthening the local economy, for families and small business owners.

A Chattanooga works council would also be historic. It would signal a tipping point for Southern attitudes toward unions. Despite aggressive right-to-work laws and anti-union politicians, workers are stirring across Southern states. Georgia, for instance, witnessed a growth in union membership from 153,000 to 171,000 in 2012, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

It’s time for a new era that revives old values — rewards for hard work, fairness, respect and a commitment to work together to solve problems and create gains for all. That’s how we’ll move into the future. And it could be coming soon in the South.

Richard Trumka is president of the AFL-CIO.

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