By Diane F. Frey, PhD
Assistant Professor of Labor Studies and Director of the Labor Studies BA Degree Program

Volkwagen Assembly Plant Employee & T-Mobile Workers

Sometimes even I can’t help but wonder, who cares or has time to worry about labor struggles in other parts of the world when working families here in the U.S. are so busy trying to get by?  But how workers organize across the globe really does matter for the U.S. labor movement.

Case in point:  two union organizing drives currently in the news are taking place in corporations owned by German parent companies – companies with strong unions and worker representation.  Meanwhile here in the U.S., workers at companies like T-Mobile and Volkswagen are seeking to form a union and are reaching out to their German counterparts and German “work councils” for assistance in their campaigns.

What are work councils?  Works councils are committees that German companies have made up of hourly and salaried workers who are elected to serve with management and represent the workers’ voice in corporate decision-making.  The idea is that the company can head off conflicts and trouble and improve productivity by dealing with workers as stakeholders.  Works Councils deal with issues related to jobs, work organization, how work is performed – but do not negotiate over wages or other economic issues.  These matters are left to trade unions to negotiate.

One of my professors at graduate school, Dr. Virginia Doellgast, wrote an academic article in 2010 comparing work in German and U.S. Call Centers.  Her work is now being used by the Communication Workers of America (CWA) in its T-Mobile organizing campaign.

Doellgast found that U.S and German call centers differed greatly in their treatment of work and workers.

German employers operating with works councils provide for worker discretion in performing their jobs and encourage workers to use a broad set of skills.  In contrast, U.S. call centers rely on managerial control of employees who work under tight discipline, individual pay incentives and narrow divisions of labor [1].

As T-Mobile workers and CWA try to organize a union to stop what they describe as the company’s “race to the bottom,” CWA is highlighting these differences via social media as part of its organizing campaign.

But German works councils are also figuring – in a very different way – in the United Auto Workers (UAW) campaign in Chattanooga, Tenn.  In this case, Volkswagen has offered to introduce Works Councils to give workers a voice and representation in company decision-making.

VW even says that the introduction of a Works Council might induce the company to bring more work to the plant.  The UAW has said it will support the idea, but as pointed out in the New York Times article, based on our laws it will only be legal if a majority of the workers vote for union representation.  Otherwise it would be considered a company-dominated union.

Meanwhile in Germany, Amazon.com experienced a “clash of cultures” when it tried to introduce robotics into warehouses without having to consult, discuss or negotiate with the unions.  Germany is an important market for Amazon – its second biggest after the U.S.

In June, the 2.3 million-strong union, ver.di went on strike, leading the company to improve conditions.  Mr. Bsirske, the union’s leader remarked, “We are not going to let a big American company come here and play Wild West.  This is a clash of cultures.”

Whether the German union’s campaign to protect workers’ rights will add momentum to U.S. Amazon employees’ efforts for more protections remains to be seen.  A recent lawsuit alleges Amazon engaged in wage theft stemming from lengthy security checks, in violation of Pennsylvania’s Minimum Wage Act.

Why the differences between U.S. workers’ rights campaigns within these three companies?  Doellgast explained in her research that “institutions matter” and help companies to decide how to behave towards their employees and competitors.  In Germany, employers take a different tact with respect to unions in that they tend to respect unions as valued stakeholders.   In contrast, U.S. companies rely mostly on stock prices to dictate decisions about how to treat workers.  

What do you think? How can unions tap into the global movement to help their own efforts – or to help others struggling for their workplace rights abroad? Post your comments below.

[1] Doellgast, V. (2010). Collective Voice under Decentralized Bargaining: A Comparative Study of Work Reorganization in US and German Call Centres. British Journal Of Industrial Relations, 48(2), 375-399.