Volkswagen April 30, 2024

The Working Catholic: Social Doctrine Part 16 by Bill Droel


It was news when this past April employees at a Volkswagen assembly plant in Chattanooga, TN voted overwhelmingly to join United Auto Workers ( The vote is noteworthy because the South is generally not receptive to unions. It is not only noteworthy in the present. We may “someday look back at the Chattanooga vote as a milestone on the road back to the more or less middle-class society” in the U.S., writes Paul Krugman in NY Times (4/26/24).

The vote’s back story is also intriguing. It has the potential to advance Catholic social thought in our country, specifically the Catholic principle of economic participation and its extension, the industry council plan. In older Catholic textbooks this is called solidarism. In Germany it is co-determinism or works council. In France it is enterprise committees; in Belgium it’s delegates for personnel; and it is joint consultative committee in England.

In his 1937 encyclical, Of a Divine Redeemer, Pope Pius XI (1857-1939) wrote about the industrial council plan. Several Catholics in the U.S. promoted the idea during and after World War II. Its basics are explained in Ed Marciniak’s City and Church by Chuck Shanabruch (National Center for the Laity, PO Box 291102, Chicago, IL 60629; $20). A council meets regularly to discuss industry products and planning. Membership includes executives, employees, middle-managers, government officials, and maybe consumers. Some topics can be off-limits, like wages. The plan does not supersede a union. In fact, its intention is to focus collective bargaining. The plan does not encourage collusion among competitor companies, including price fixing. In fact, the plan’s goal of cooperation enhances production within democratic competition. The industry council solicits and implements ideas from all the participants in a company or an industry. Its outcome lessens the need for government meddling.

As the industry council plan spreads, Marciniak said, neo-liberal industrialism or post-industrialism will be tempered. “Society has lost its organic character,” Marciniak wrote in 1954. Society “is gradually being torn apart by class and racial conflict.” The industry council plan, he emphasized, “is not benevolent paternalism, but rather a real partnership in which working [people] will become co-responsible with management in solving the economic problems of industry.”

Please note: The industry council plan does not hang on the cloths line by itself. It is one contribution to multiple reforms that take shape gradually. Second, the plan is not of, by and for Catholics. There is no need to ever invoke Pius XI or Marciniak. The council’s meetings do not require an opening prayer.

Back to Tennessee. VW, headquartered in Wolfsburg, Germany, participates in a works council. VW wanted to implement that model in its Chattanooga plant. However, U.S. labor law seems to require a union before there can be a works council. In 2011 some workers in Chattanooga began a union drive at VW. They lost a vote in February 2014. Reasons for the defeat included the oddity that VW’s Tennessee employees at that time were paid a few cents more than Northern workers represented by UAW. Additionally, some VW employees in Chattanooga lacked confidence in the UAW executives up in Detroit. Along came Shawn Fain, who in March 2023 won a reform campaign to be UAW president. He then led a rolling strike simultaneously at GM, Ford and Stellantis. By October 2023 a framework for a favorable contract was in place.

The success of the UAW’s strike in 2023 and more specifically its 2024 success in Tennessee raise the possibility of a works council in the U.S. Stay tuned.


Droel edits INITIATIVES (PO Box 291102, Chicago, IL 60629), a printed newsletter on faith and work.

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