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UAW president pushes for 'works council' at VW Tennessee plant

President of the United Auto Workers Bob King addresses the second session of Democratic National Convention in Charlotte, North Carolina, S
President of the United Auto Workers Bob King addresses the second session of Democratic National Convention in Charlotte, North Carolina, S

By Bernie Woodall and Andreas Cremer

(Reuters) - United Auto Workers President Bob King met with Volkswagen AG and German labor leaders last Friday in an attempt to move toward German-style worker representation at the VW plant in Chattanooga, Tennessee, German union sources said on Tuesday.

Union officials in Germany who wished to remain anonymous said on Tuesday that the 2,500 Volkswagen workers at the Chattanooga plant may be briefed as soon as this week on efforts to bring the matter to a vote and on the UAW's willingness to back that vote.

At VW plants, workers are represented by so-called works councils, which include laborers as well as executives who cooperate to determine issues ranging from company strategy to job conditions. They do not negotiate wages or benefits.

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

Armed with an agreement at Chattanooga, the UAW would have more leverage when trying to organize other German automakers with U.S. plants, the former auto executive said. Daimler AG has a Mercedes-Benz plant in Alabama and BMW has a factory in South Carolina.

The meeting between King and Horst Neumann, a board member at Volkswagen and its head of human resources, was first reported on Monday by the German newspaper Handelsblatt.

Union sources in Germany gave no clear picture when a vote on forming a works council could take place in Chattanooga. The UAW did not respond to several requests for comment on Tuesday.

"We've said since Day 1 at the plant that ultimately it's up to our employees whether they even want formal representation," said Volkswagen of America spokesman Tony Cervone.

The UAW under King has intensified efforts to organize foreign-owned U.S. auto assembly plants, which are located primarily in the South.

So far those efforts have not been successful in bringing about a vote for unionization.

The UAW grew by 0.5 percent last year to 382,513 members, but the numbers have declined since 1979, when membership was 1.5 million strong.

There was no indication whether the UAW, Volkswagen and the German union that represents VW workers, IG Metall, have made significant progress since March when Neumann said the company was in talks with the UAW to set up a council in Chattanooga.

Also in March, IG Metall President Berthold Huber said in a letter distributed to Chattanooga workers that it supported the UAW as the union to represent them.

It is likely that any works council at Chattanooga would have to be formed in league with a U.S.-based union, several labor lawyers and college professors said.

Volkswagen has 102 plants worldwide, and all of them except for the Chattanooga factory and those in China have such a council, an expression of the company's belief in what it calls "co-determination."

"We've been very clear all along that we are looking for an innovative solution that gives our employees a strong voice in Chattanooga," said Cervone of Volkswagen of America.

(Reporting by Bernie Woodall in Detroit and Andreas Cremer in Berlin; Editing by Prudence Crowther)

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