The UAW is closer than it has been in decades to organizing a foreign-based assembly plant, thanks to support from the largest auto union in Germany, which is urging workers at Volkswagen's Chattanooga, Tenn., factory that the UAW could improve their work life.
IG Metall President Berthold Huber sent a letter to the VW Tennessee workers urging them to vote for UAW representation. Volkswagen's board member in charge of human resources, Horst Neumann, also told reporters in Europe this month that the automaker is in discussions with the UAW on the matter.
These developments signal that the UAW has a serious shot at winning Volkswagen's backing in its bid to convince workers to join the union.
Autoworkers for Asian companies have spurned union representation. Most of the plants are in the South where right-to-work laws allow individual workers to avoid a union even if a majority of their co-workers vote for union representation.
But Volkswagen made cars in the U.S. once before, at a union-represented plant in Westmoreland County, Pa., from 1978 to 1988. The product was the Rabbit. Workers were represented by the UAW.
Cornell University professor Lowell Turner, who tracks labor relations, said the UAW's organizing effort in Chattanooga represents its "best shot so far" outside of the Detroit Three.
The 2.5-million-square-foot plant, where Volkswagen produces the Passat sedan, employs about 2,350 full-time employees and, as recently as July, 1,000 temporary workers. The plant, which began production two years ago, is one of the few VW factories without a union.
"I wouldn't be surprised at all if there's a breakthrough on this in the coming weeks and months," Turner said. "Management is saying, 'If it's done in an innovative way, we're not going to fight the union.' "
Volkswagen did not respond to a request for comment.
There may be some differences in the way the UAW structures its presence in the Tennessee plant. Both management and IG Metall are discussing the formation of a works council at the Chattanooga plant, similar to the way IG Metall operates in Germany.
Under this setup, the UAW would first have to convince Chattanooga workers to join the union, which would gain the power to negotiate labor contracts covering wages and working conditions, Turner said.
If successful, the parties could establish a separate works council, with members elected by union members and management, to negotiate issues not covered in the contract.
"The Germans call it a dual system of representation," Turner said. "It's missing in this country. We don't really have a parallel for it."
UAW President Bob King has made organizing an Asian or European-owned assembly plant a priority of his leadership. The union has met with workers at Nissan's plants in Smyrna, Tenn., and Canton, Miss. But past organizing drives at Nissan in Tennessee failed twice. In Mississippi, community groups and the UAW are working together to win worker support.
King said in a statement that the prospect of a works council at Volkswagen represents an "exciting opportunity" to launch "open, fair and respectful dialogue and cooperation" with the automaker. He called the works council "completely consistent with the UAW's 21st Century model of unionism."
This would be the first time management of an overseas automaker has indicated it would accept the American union.
King praised Volkswagen for its global reputation of maintaining "a system of cooperation with unions and works councils," which contrasts with King's pointed criticism of Nissan for what the union contends is intimidation of workers in Tennessee and Mississippi.
"It's a hallmark of a distinctly different organizing strategy than what most of these companies have seen before," said Kristen Dziczek, a labor economist at the Center for Automotive Research in Ann Arbor. "I would call it coalition building. You can win a war by just hard-fought battles. Or you can win a war by winning it smart. I think this is their attempt to win it smart."
Neither Volkswagen nor the UAW is likely to change Tennessee's right-to-work legislation. Local leaders aren't embracing the union, either. Ron Harr, CEO of the Chattanooga Area Chamber of Commerce, confirmed in an e-mail that he opposes the UAW's bid.
But Dziczek said the latest developments could convince workers who had previously opposed the union to reconsider.
"This really makes it seem like less of a risk if someone was on the fence about supporting the union," she said. "They've got to win the hearts and minds of the people who are going to vote for representation."
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