A German union leader on Volkswagen AG VOW3.XE +1.30% 's supervisory board says union representation at the company's Chattanooga, Tenn., assembly plant shouldn't come without a vote—a position that could complicate the United Auto Workers' effort to gain a foothold at the factory.
The UAW, as part of a broader effort to organize nonunion auto factories in the southern U.S., says it has collected signed union cards from more than half of the 2,000 production workers at the VW plant.
The UAW has signaled it would prefer Volkswagen management to accept the union as its bargaining partner without a secret ballot election by workers, a path allowed under U.S. labor law.
Wednesday, a senior UAW official said the union is open to working with Volkswagen to form a new, less confrontational labor-management relationship than it has with Detroit's unionized auto makers.
"This is a new model of representation," said Gary Casteel, an organizer spearheading the UAW's drive to organize the Chattanooga plant.
He also said any decision on UAW representation at the plant could require approval of staffers in a secret-ballot vote, but any decision about a vote would come in the future.
Bernd Osterloh , an employee representative on Volkswagen's supervisory board, which is the equivalent of a board of directors at a U.S. company, said it supports creation of a "works council" to negotiate workplace conditions with management at the Tennessee factory, but he also appears to call for a vote on the issue.
"Democracy does not end at the plant gates," Mr. Osterloh said in the statement. "This principle is not negotiable."
Mr. Osterloh's statement, released last Friday in Germany, marked one of the few times he has offered extensive comments on the UAW's effort to unionize the Chattanooga plant, which Volkswagen opened in 2011.
Mr. Osterloh is head of Volkswagen's global works council, and the most senior employee representative on the supervisory board, which is evenly split between labor and management members.
He stopped short of offering a clear endorsement of the UAW. Instead, he said the employee representatives on VW's supervisory board are determined to have both the white-collar and blue-collar Chattanooga employees represented by a works council.
"At this time we are only dealing with the legal groundwork for setting up a works council in Chattanooga," Mr. Osterloh said in his statement. "If it goes to the next step, the composition [of a works council], then we will invite all parties to work with us on such a body."
A Volkswagen spokesman in the U.S., Tony Cervone, said the auto maker believes it has good labor relations with its employees and added that any decision on representation will be made by employees themselves, "by a formal vote, if that's necessary."
The decision on a works council in Chattanooga comes at time when VW's top management is considering using the plant to build a new sport-utility vehicle. That would increase production at the facility, which is on track to make about 150,000 cars this year, short of the full capacity level of about 250,000.
"It would be good if the Chattanooga plant already had a works council," Mr. Osterloh said. "As employee representatives on the supervisory board, we know how important [the SUV] is for Chattanooga. And like our colleagues in the USA, we are also open for such as assignment."
A secret ballot vote could complicate the union's chances of organizing the plant. The UAW has a mixed track record in secret-ballot votes. In August, the union said it had more signed cards from more than half the workers at a parts plant in Mississippi but a majority voted against union representation when the matter was put to a ballot.
In Germany most plants have works councils, but under U.S. law companies can only have works councils if workers are represented by an outside union. Volkswagen's desire to have a works council in Chattanooga has led to the UAW having talks with Volkswagen management and labor representatives about representing the workers there.
Those discussions have been met with criticism from Republican politicians in Tennessee, which is a right to work state.
After the UAW began speaking publicly about its talks with VW management and the union cards it has collected, a group of Chattanooga workers opposed to the union began rallying support. A leader of that group, Mike Burton, an paint inspector on the production line, group last week presented the plant's top executive with petitions bearing signatures from 563 production workers.
Mr. Osterloh and other VW officials plan to come to the U.S. in the next several weeks to meet with workers at the Chattanooga plant as well as with Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam and Sen. Bob Corker (R., Tenn.), both of whom have said a unionization of the VW plant would make it harder to convince other manufacturers to open plants in the state.
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Original headline: Volkswagen German Labor Leader Says Tennessee Workers Should Vote on UAW
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