Collective bargaining gets bad rap

December 9, 2013

Collective bargaining gets bad rap

By Daniel Cornfield

By choosing to affiliate with the United Automobile Workers union, Volkswagen employees in Chattanooga would join one of the boldest initiatives in labor-management cooperation in the United States. They would join the ranks of those Tennesseans who also work in prestigious, unionized major corporations that drive the Tennessee economy and provide thousands of Tennesseans with decent jobs.

Yet, despite the positive impact of unionized major corporations in Tennessee, some high-ranking Tennessee elected public officials have been actively discouraging Volkswagen and its employees from engaging in collective bargaining. The public officials’ claims that unionization hinders Tennessee’s economic development are at best unmindful of the positive economic impact of these corporations. Many large, private Tennessee employers have union collective bargaining agreements with some or all of their employees, including Alstom Power, AT&T, Bridgestone, Carlex, CSX, FedEx, Ford Motor Co., General Motors, Kroger, Lear, Medical Action Industries, Norfolk Southern, St. Francis Hospital, Sharp Manufacturing, Southwest Airlines, Tyson Foods, UPS and Voith.

What is gained from collective bargaining? The average unionized employee earns about 20 percent more in a week than his or her non-union counterpart, according to the U.S. Department of Labor. A typical collective bargaining agreement provides for health insurance and a retirement pension with contributions shared by employer and employee, as well as fair and non-discriminatory rules for determining wages and making promotions, transfers, layoffs and discharges. Labor strikes are rare in the United States, and employers gain a loyal workforce.

The Volkswagen system of labor-management cooperation — known as “co-determination” — would make its union-represented workforce partners with management in personnel decision-making. Building on a foundation of collective bargaining over wages, benefits and working conditions, Volkswagen employees would elect rank-and-file representatives to a “works council,” which would collaborate with company management in making policy and addressing individual cases. Jonathan Browning, Volkswagen Group of America’s president and CEO, recently told Reuters that “our strong desire is to have a works council present in Chattanooga.” Under U.S. labor law, however, VW employees must choose to unionize in order to establish a works council in Chattanooga. Few employees in the United States enjoy this much collegiality with their employers, and this much control over their livelihoods, as the employees who would participate in this exemplary system of labor-management cooperation.

Tennessee’s elected public officials should acknowledge the positive economic impact of unionized corporations on the prestige and growth of the state economy, and the thousands of decent jobs they have created in Tennessee. They should refrain from making dismissive comments about a business practice — collective bargaining — that has generated economic uplift and prosperity in our state.

Instead, Tennessee’s elected public officials should defer to the employees who must choose to unionize in order to establish a VW works council in Chattanooga. Doing so will further brand Tennessee as a 21st-century model site for labor-management cooperation and investment, and encourage a high-road approach to economic development in Tennessee.

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