POWER OF THE UNION
That machine, a giant clamp, takes the body and chassis of an automobile at the moment they come together (as they say in German plants, where they’re married), and turns them on their side as they travel down the line. Workers on either side can then bolt them together and attach other components while they’re standing up.
Before the clamp was introduced, workers had to stand or lie below the line, and work with their hands over their heads all shift. This was uncomfortable, they say, and after many years, even the source of injuries. With the car body turned on its side, workers can use their arms and hands in a more natural position.
German auto workers belong to IG Metall, one of the world’s largest unions. Their union fought for the introduction of the clamp, and one important provision of German labor law helped them do it.
At the end of World War Two, the German labor code was rewritten (ironically, at the instigation of the US government, which at the time was much more concerned with workers rights than it is today.) In the modern German system, workers won the right to elect a works council in every enterprise. That council has a great deal of bargaining leverage with management over local working conditions in the plant.
IG Metall runs slates of candidates for works councils in every plant where it has members. In large auto plants, some of the union's most important leaders are the works council members.
Works councils throughout the auto industry helped develop the idea for the clamp, and pushed to have it installed. The machines are expensive, and require additional space on the floor for the area where the clamp travels back to the point where it picks up another car. It makes workers happier, and happier workers are more productive. But the purpose of the machine wasn’t to increase line speed or raise productivity -- it was simply to make jobs on the line better ones.
Without a strong union and a structure for labor relations that workers could use effectively, the clamp would still be just an idea. It was the power of the union that made it real.
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