Labor unions seeking to stem steady losses within their ranks are getting creative. The AFL-CIO recently passed a resolution permitting anyone in the country to join its organization, regardless of union affiliation. Pushing for passage of this resolution, AFL-CIO head Richard Trumka proclaimed that “[T]he success of our movement…is measured by the progress of working people – all working people – by the lives we lead, by the hopes and dreams we make real together.” 

The Volkswagen (VW) manufacturing facility in Tennessee reports that the United Auto Workers – an AFL-CIO affiliate – is borrowing the European union vision of progress for working people to win over VW workers. If successful, bank on unions mimicking the UAW “gospel” across the United States.

The media has reported, at length, the post-recession resurgence of American manufacturing. Competition among states to attract businesses and much needed jobs has led to pro-business state regulatory environments, employer-friendly labor laws, and generous tax incentives. Motorola Mobility is to assemble smartphones in Texas; Apple is to produce Mac computers in Texas with components manufactured in Illinois, Florida, Kentucky and Michigan; General Electric brought back manufacturing some water heaters from China to Kentucky; and Boeing has 787 Dreamliners flying out of its plant in South Carolina.

International companies are also contributing to increases in U.S. manufacturing. Beyond VW’s Tennessee plant, German chemical manufacturer BASF invested billions of dollars in its American plants, and BMW now assembles cars in South Carolina. Along with new jobs and manufacturing processes, these companies are importing their concept of the employer-employee relationship, a concept often “foreign” to the accepted vision of industrial labor relations in the US.

As an example, VW and the UAW are coordinating efforts to unionize VW’s Tennessee facility and create a German-style works council. A German “works council” is an employer-funded, shop-floor organization that discusses company rules, working conditions, personnel actions, productivity, and other work issues. 

In sharp contrast, the U.S. Supreme Court’s Electromation decision has permitted the National Labor Relations Board to microscope and frown on employers who create, fund, and otherwise assist such an organization – a prohibition Volkswagen hopes to sidestep by partnering with the UAW. Questions remain, however, about whether VW unlawfully invited UAW into its Tennessee plant and assisted in the union’s organizing efforts. 

Questions also remain about the consequences of a UAW victory at the Tennessee plant. Would the VW Global Works Council permit UAW participation? Would the VW Global Works Council influence negotiations between the UAW and VW over wages, hours, and working conditions for Tennessee employees, and would such influence violate U.S. labor laws? Would international disputes and legal rulings between VW and the Global Works Council impact U.S. workers?

It is far too early to predict whether the VW-UAW joint venture will succeed, and, if so, whether its message will echo throughout the US. What is certain, however, is that unions, hungry for members and their dues, will jump on any action plan that can help them keep members and attract new ones.