Is the U.S. About To Get Its First European-Style Employee Works Council?

By Allen Brandt, CIPP/US, CIPP/E, CIPM

A recent article in The New York Times noted that every one of Volkswagen’s (VW) manufacturing plants in the world has an employee works council except one: the VW plant in Chattanooga, TN. Works councils are popular in VW’s home country of Germany and created by a directive in the European Union. This directive mandates employees have a voice in working with management  about working conditions in their environment.

U.S. chief privacy officers (CPOs) and their European counterparts—data protection officers (DPOs)—often work with works councils in many areas but especially in protecting employee privacy. In fact, German DPOs and their corporate works councils have a reputation for being strong defenders in protecting privacy rights. Want to monitor e-mail or social media in the workplace? Centralize your HR records in the U.S.? Or ready to add a whistleblower hotline? The German Works Council Act, for example, empowers the works council to agree or refuse consent of many employee-monitoring devices. All of these require consultation in advance of the organization’s works council, and you can expect to hear a strong statement in support of protecting privacy rights!

Some court decisions about protecting worker privacy and e-mail might surprise some. For example, a court ruled that a company cannot delete the account of former employees unless those employees no longer have an interest in the account. So if employees used the corporate e-mail account for personal reasons, they might still have an interest in that account (for their personal e-mail) long after they leave the company. All is not gloomy, though, as works council approval might constitute employee consent for your project.

While some decry the time, cost and complexity of working with works councils, Germany, for example, has a history of peaceful labor relations, low unemployment and high worker productivity.

Putting aside for a moment the issues of whether a works council is or isn’t a labor union, think about changes that could occur if this model of worker engagement took hold in the U.S. It would require that a CPO would have an additional level of complexity in creating and implementing privacy programs that impact the organization’s employees. Employee representatives would become an integral part of the stakeholder group with whom a CPO would regularly work.

With an increased interest in protecting employee data, could this carry over in how the organization views its customer data? Would this change cause more companies to share less data, and what would the economic impacts be to the information economy?

The concept of an employee voice in protecting their personal information could have a widespread impact across many areas of an organization. Perhaps, in the long term, the interests of U.S. and European employees might be closer than we think. This will be in interesting development to watch.

More from Allen Brandt

About the Author

Allen Brandt, CIPP/US, CIPP/E, CIPM, is corporate counsel, data protection and privacy, and chief privacy official for GMAC, which owns the Graduate Management Admission Test (GMAT), an exam delivered to prospective graduate business students in 111 countries worldwide. He provides legal guidance and counsel on U.S. and domestic consumer privacy issues, creates data protection policies and procedures, responds to privacy inquiries and leads the privacy training program. In addition, he monitors compliance with the council’s marketing programs and oversees the filing of international data processing applications and notices.

Brandt is a member of the California and Missouri Bars and is a Virginia corporate counsel.  

See all posts by Allen Brandt


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