“Democracy is an important part of American culture,” Volkswagen's new top man in the U.S., Michael Horn, said Jan 13. With that, Horn confirmed that VW would allow employees at its Chattanooga, Tenn., plant to vote on whether they want to join a union. He added that he would honor the majority's wishes. Don't look for rejoicing from Big Labor, though. While the United Auto Workers has been trying mightily to unionize the plant, the UAW opposes a worker vote. Why? Because, as one UAW organizer candidly admitted to the Tennessean newspaper in October, "we'd probably lose.”

The UAW has instead been trying to force VW to unionize the plant itself. They got help from the German autoworkers union, IG Metall, which has considerable say in company decisions under European law. IG Metall refused to okay expansion in Chattanooga unless the workers had representation in the form of a European-style, company-backed “workers council.”

While the United Auto Workers has tried mightily to unionize the plant, the labor outfit opposes a worker vote

How does this help the UAW? Because under U.S. labor law such councils are illegal unless the workers also have a union. Thus, the only way VW could expand the plant was to get the workers into a union. So it cleared the way for the UAW's organizing efforts. But many of the workers at the Chattanooga facility -- quite possibly a majority -- don't want a union. Eight have filed federal complaints that the UAW was using fraudulent means to get them to sign up.

VW's decision to allow a worker vote, rather than go the “card check” route the UAW prefers, is the company's attempt to extricate itself from this awkward situation. It also happens to be the right thing to do. Still, the situation does raise an interesting question: Why should worker councils be illegal under the National Labor Relations Act in the first place? The prohibition exists because any company-backed union would in theory have a major conflict of interest, blurring the distinction between management and labor.

Yet, as the Chattanooga case shows, independent unions don't always act in the workers’ best interests, either. Sometimes they collude with management. In any event, why limit the representation choices available to workers? An American hybrid where workers could bring complaints, offer suggestions or otherwise simply talk directly to management would go a long way towards fostering workplace harmony.

Worker councils could do this without forcing employees to also fork over monthly union dues or subjecting the company to the costly regulatory burdens that come with organized labor.

If the workers decide that the council isn’t working — or is in bed with management — they can simply abandon it. As long as the council isn’t granted exclusive representation rights, which could easily be written into any federal law change, workers could still form a union if they wanted. That would make it in the company's interests to work with the council in good faith. Such a council would have spared both VW and its workers a lot of turmoil over the last year.