Volkswagen in talks with UAW on Tennessee plant workers

Foreign-owned factories in the U.S. could bolster dwindling union membership

CHATTANOOGA (Reuters) — Volkswagen AG is in talks with the United Auto Workers because worker representation at the plant can only be realized by working with a U.S. trade union, the German carmaker's auto assembly plant manager in Chattanooga, Tennessee, said.

In a Thursday letter to the 2,500 Volkswagen workers in Chattanooga obtained by Reuters, Frank Fischer, chief executive officer at the plant, informed workers that the company has entered talks with the UAW.

"In the U.S., a works council can only be realized together with a trade union," Fischer's letter says. "This is the reason why Volkswagen has started a dialogue with the UAW in order to check the possibility of implementing an innovative model of employee representation for all employees."

UAW President Bob King has been trying without success thus far to organize foreign-owned, U.S.-based auto plants to bolster membership in the union, which has fallen from its peak in the late 1970s.

King is open to what Fischer called "an innovative model" in order to gain acceptance by workers at foreign-owned auto plants, which are primarily in the U.S. South.

"If Bob King can get his foot in the door at Chattanooga, even if it's just a works council, it's pretty significant," a former auto executive at a foreign automaker with U.S. plants, who wished to remain anonymous, said earlier this week.

On Wednesday, during a call about Volkswagen's U.S. sales, Jonathan Browning, head of the company in the United States, said: "We've been very clear that that process has to run its course, that no management decision has been made and that it may or may not conclude with formal third-party representation."

Browning also said that ultimately, the decision on whether to have third-party representation will be decided by Chattanooga's workers by a formal vote.

There was no indication in Fischer's letter when such a vote would be held.

The UAW was not immediately available for comment on Friday morning.

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