A number of state officials and the Justices of the U.S. Supreme Court face a critical choice: Do they endorse a return to the 19th and early 20th Century era of conflict and bloodshed that characterized America's labor history, or endorse a 21st Century labor management system based on innovation, partnership, collaboration, and mutual respect?
At the Tennessee state level, Volkswagen and the United Auto Workers are reportedly close to agreeing on a works council that would give employees a voice in shaping their working conditions and improving Volkswagen's performance. For years, many labor relations scholars, including myself, have argued that works councils -- elected bodies representing all workers in an enterprise -- would be a productive and innovative complement to traditional structures of union-management relations.
Now, we have a golden opportunity to put this idea to a test. Unfortunately, some politicians, such as Tennessee's Senator Bob Corker, National Right-to-Work Foundation supporters and other anti-union consultants, see this as a threat to maintaining the state's reputation as a union-free place for firms to locate.
Two cases now before the Supreme Court pose similar stark choices. One case, UNITE HERE Local 355 vs. Mulhall, will determine if an employer and union can negotiate a neutrality agreement where the workers decide whether to form a union, free from interference or opposition. Such a radical idea actually became law more than eighty years ago. In 1935, Congress decided that battles over union recognition should be replaced by orderly procedures that allowed workers to make the choice -- not management.
Neutrality agreements have spawned and are integral parts of the most advanced labor management partnerships in the country. A neutrality agreement allowed GM and the UAW to create the Saturn Corporation in Spring Hill, Tenn. in the 1980s. Saturn served as the most innovative labor-management model of its time. Hundreds of organizations visited Saturn to learn from its practices, but GM refused to give Saturn new products, eventually contributing to its demise. Now, GM's Spring Hill facility has reopened -- a result of collective bargaining -- using some of the same ideas that Saturn first developed.
In contrast, large health care insurance provider Kaiser Permanente did learn from Saturn. In 1997, it created a labor-management partnership that has lasted more than 15 years, sustained by a neutrality agreement. The partnership has improved health care quality and patient satisfaction through the work of more than 3,500 front line, problem-solving teams. It has also helped Kaiser lead the nation in electronic medical records technologies and continues to provide industry-leading wages and benefits. This is a win-win-win outcome for consumers, managers, and employees. Would a return to the war over union organizing at Kaiser -- and health care providers following its lead -- be in the national interest?
In another case, Harris v. Quinn, the Supreme Court will decide if home health care workers -- one of the fastest growing, but lowest paid occupations in the country -- can be covered by public sector collective bargaining statutes and negotiate agency fee provisions to cover the costs of representation. This is another area with proven benefits from union coverage that produces wins for workers, patients and families, and state policymakers. Union coverage in states like California have allowed patients and their families to receive better, more stable, and predictable care, while the state improves its laws at lower cost and builds a higher quality labor force for an occupation predicted to grow as our population ages. Not to mention, workers gain a living wage and the time-off promised.
The success of collaborative models in labor management relations is embodied in works councils, neutrality agreements, and access to collective bargaining for home healthcare workers and should lead to a chorus of support from consumers, families, employers, and workers.
We should all speak in one voice to politicians, Supreme Court Justices, and other decision makers to say that we want a 21st Century labor management policy -- not a return to the labor wars of the past. And, we want it to begin with the Volkswagen plant in Chattanooga.