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White Shirt Day and the American Works Council

White Shirt Day and the American Works Council

Feb. 11, 1937, is one of the most glorious days in the storied history of American labor, the day the famous UAW sit-down strike in Flint was settled in a victory for the workers. General Motors recognized the UAW as the bargaining agent for all the union members in skilled and production positions in its plants, and industrial unionism was on the map. 

It would lead to broad-based collective bargaining across a vast and successful swath of the American economy, and to the establishment of the middle class. The idea that the average working person could and should be able to afford a decent life for his or her family became something that seemed normal. Nothing fancy in many cases, but a chicken in every pot.

Eleven years later, on Feb. 11, 1948, in the midst of a post-war boom fueling optimism and a sense that even more was possible, UAW Local 598 in Flint began a tradition that spread across the UAW: "White Shirt Day." 

UAW members wearing white shirts to work in the factory on Feb. 11 symbolized that the presence of the union on the shop floor had brought them into co-equal status with their foremen, who were always dressed in shirts and ties. 

So it's not without a bit of irony that today, Feb. 11, 2014, White Shirt Day, comes just a day before autoworkers at the Volkswagen plant in Chattanooga, Tenn., begin to vote on union representation. If the workers decide to form a union, it will lead to the establishment of a works council that would put workers and management into a co-equal status in a formal structure the original sit-downers could only have dreamed about.

The establishment of a works council at Volkswagen could usher in a new era also worthy of being commemorated in the annals of American workplace relations. Remember, a works council as it functions at Volkswagen locations across the globe includes a seat at the table not just for hourly workers, but for salaried workers, too—the supervisors, the engineers, even the personnel department. 

If a works council is established at Volkswagen in Tennessee and the parties decide to adopt the usual structure—which is still to be determined—all employees would elect representatives to sit on the council and hash out issues and policies that affect everyone.

This would be like White Shirt Day updated for the digital age. All employee groups would be at the table discussing their future with the top management of the enterprise. 

Seen in this light, the vote for union representation at Volkswagen has ramifications far beyond those affecting the hourly workers who have a vote. So, in a few days, when the votes are counted by the National Labor Relations Board, while the critics and pundits are spinning the politics of who won and how it all happened, look for something different: A step toward an employment system that values all employees, hourly and salaried alike, and proves it by giving them a genuine voice in important decisions.

Volkswagen and the UAW are attempting to step away from the mean and self-aggrandizing standard of workplace relations set by America's economic elites, toward a new conception of enterprise based on the inclusion and mutual respect of all stakeholders. 

Already, Volkswagen and the UAW are showing what such an approach could mean for the American workplace. The election for union representation at Chattanooga will be conducted in an atmosphere of respect and fairness jointly agreed to by the company and the union. Absent are the crude recriminations between the parties and the harassment and firing of union supporters common in representation elections.

All this labor-management cooperation is driving the right-wing opponents of the process crazy. They know that if a works council is successfully established on American soil, it could become popular, and a movement for all companies to give their employees a formal voice in the enterprise could grow. That's not the plan the masters of the universe have in mind, and the politicians and advocacy groups they finance are almost apoplectic in trying to prevent it.

Let's hope the non-adversarial approach that Volkswagen and the UAW have crafted is successful. We desperately need a new employee relations system in the United States, one that values employees and includes them in decision making.

It’s time for a reboot of the lean and mean approach to work and employment, and a works council that puts everyone at the table could be a historic turn toward an economy that works for working families. Happy White Shirt Day!

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