The news that Volkswagen's corporate management is considering formation here of a German-style workers' council, or union, whose representatives would work with management on employee and productivity issues should be welcome by both VW employees and the city's and state's economic development advocates.
The traditional German approach to draw workers into close collaboration with management for their mutual benefit has made Germany the international standard for quality craftsmanship and economic and production prowess. Though Germany dropped behind booming China as the world's largest exporter a couple of years ago, it remains the world's second largest exporter. That ranking still puts it ahead of the United States — though its population is barely a fourth of the U.S. population, and just a tiny fraction of China's population.
Unfortunately, political and Chamber of Commerce leaders here, having failed in their two-year-long lobbying effort to persuade Volkswagen not to allow a union, are acting as if the global automotive giant is making a huge mistake and setting a bad precedent for Tennessee.
How blind these critics are.
Their lack of appreciation for a constructive worker-management bond is deeply disappointing and stunningly outmoded. It reflects not just an old-fashioned, close-minded, anti-union bias. It also suggests an entrenched, negative mindset that sees rank-and-file workers as akin to selfish, lazy, mindless drones who shouldn't be accorded a say in employee relations or ways to improve productivity.
The critics of fair treatment and demonstrated respect for workers further disapprove of VW's decision on the knee-jerk theory that it might repel other companies from locating in Tennessee. They fear the presence of an auto-workers union might somehow generate pressure for other employers to negotiate with workers over pay, benefits and potential production and quality improvements. That's clearly not on the horizon.
That mindset — an outdated product of the nation's early union battles to win basic workers' rights, and a latter-day era of union featherbedding when America was the economic kingpin in the post-World War II devastation of Europe and Japan — needs to be junked. Unionists who once saw union rules as a ticket to feather-bedding and limitless job protection know those days are long gone. In an increasingly competitive global economy, unions know — and employers should also know — that they must cooperate at a higher, more collaborative level to ensure success.
America's employers need all the help, motivation, ingenuity and loyalty they can get from their employees. Germany's age-old collaborative approach with employees should help attain those goals. It also should serve companies here as a transformative and more productive example for spurring employees' creativity as well as their productivity.
In any event, VW's worker council initiative could set no binding precedent for unions in Tennessee. It is certainly unlikely, for example, that Tennessee's Republican-controlled Legislature would entertain a proposal to revoke the state's so-called right-to-work law, which ensures that employees, in what few union shops are left, remain free to reject union membership.
The lower economic status of right-to-work states, however, should remind lawmakers and employers alike that right-to-work laws are no symbol of economic might for their broad middle-class. In most of the 24 Southern and Western states with such laws and a strong anti-union bias, wages, education, consumer spending and middle-class wealth are lower than in states without such laws.
If economic success is the measure, states with higher levels of wealth and education coincide with the presence of unions. If VW's willingness to test collaboration with a workers' council here leads to an improved economic and work environment for its employees, and higher productivity and earnings for the company, what's the problem? There's no reason for fair-minded critics to fear any of that.