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DETROIT (Reuters) - The United Auto Workers would like Volkswagen AG to voluntarily recognize the U.S. union as the best choice to represent the German automaker's workers at its Tennessee plant, the union's president said on Thursday.
Doing so would eliminate the need for a more formal and divisive vote, UAW President Bob King said, and allow the union and VW to represent the workers using an "innovative model" that would be a milestone in the union's long-running effort to organize foreign-owned auto plants.
Critics, however, argue that such an approach would be undemocratic.
King has been trying to organize foreign-owned, U.S.-based auto plants to bolster a union membership that has shrunk since its peak in the late 1970s.
Historically, the U.S. South has been hostile to unions, and scoring a win at VW would mark the UAW's first success at a major foreign automaker's plant in that region. That could alter the landscape in the U.S. auto sector, opening door to similar efforts at plants owned by Germany's Mercedes in Alabama and BMW in South Carolina, and possibly those owned by Japanese and South Korean automakers, analysts have said.
The question in Tennessee would be whether the UAW seeks a formal vote for recognition or asks VW officials simply to recognize the union as the official bargaining unit for the workers under a new German-style representation model called a "works council."
"An election process is more divisive," King said in a telephone interview, referring to outside nonunion groups that would likely pit workers against each other. "I don't think that's in Volkswagen's best interests. I don't think that's in the best interests of Tennessee.
"If they want to ... recognize us based on majority, I think that is the quickest, most effective way," he added, noting that the UAW has taken a similar approach with hundreds of other companies in the United States. King declined to give a timeline on how long the process will take.
VW executives said last week in a letter to employees at the Chattanooga plant they were in talks with the UAW about the union's bid to represent workers.
King said the union has received cards signed by a majority of the plant's 2,500 workers saying they want UAW representation. He declined to give the exact percentage, saying the number was still rising.
In VW's home country of Germany, the IG Metall union that represents workers has seats on the company's board. IG Metall would like to see the UAW organize the Chattanooga plant and bring it in line with Volkswagen's other major factories around the world, all of which have union representation.
King declined to say what preference IG Metall or VW officials have voiced to him on the question of a vote, but said the union was anxious to work with the German automaker to make the plant more productive.
Avoiding lengthy and potentially bitter elections has been an aim of U.S. labor for years, said Arthur Schwartz, a consultant and former General Motors Co labor negotiator. The Employee Free Choice Act, which has never had enough support to pass in U.S. Congress, would have allowed a union to be automatically recognized without an election if it were able to persuade 50 percent of the workforce plus one person to sign cards supporting the union.
Opponents of the act, including many Republicans, say that approach subverts the democratic process. They argue the union can pressure workers to sign the cards, whereas as elections with confidential ballots allow people to vote their true desires.
"Team members (at the plant) have said to me, ‘Well, I had the understanding that I would have a secret ballot, the democratic process, and now it looks like it's being taken away from me,'" said Don Jackson, an industry consultant who was VW's U.S. manufacturing chief until last June.
UAW officials have said workers have already expressed their desire by signing the cards.
The head of VW's global works council, Bernd Osterloh, told Reuters the current debate was "absolutely unacceptable" and there were "clear signs" the UAW has the support of many employees in Tennessee to discuss some sort of representation.
"VW has only acquired its global strength because workers are tied into corporate decisions," he said in an email. "We will continue the talks in the U.S. to set up a German-style works council with the UAW and all politicians that are open to this."
In Germany, IG Metall negotiates worker compensation every few years, while the works council handles working conditions in the plants. The UAW would play the role of the German union in the United States, a model King thinks can be transferred to other foreign-owned plants, including those of the Japanese and South Korean automakers.
VW board member Horst Neumann, who is also an IG Metall member who has voiced support for the UAW, told Automotive News this week that company lawyers were working on a proposal for a works council-like model for the U.S. plant and a proposal for the workers could be ready for discussion as soon as mid-January.
VW executives in the United States have said the workers will have the final decision on whether to choose the UAW, but they have repeatedly focused on a formal voting process. Jackson, the former U.S. manufacturing chief at VW, expects the automaker would only accept the union after a confidential ballot vote by the Tennessee plant's workers.
Tennessee officials are more hostile to the union. U.S. Senator Bob Corker, a Tennessee Republican, told Reuters on Tuesday that bringing the UAW into the VW plant would be "a job-destroying idea" and termed laughable the union's claims it has become more flexible and easier to work with than in the past.
Earlier on Thursday, a Tennessee state legislator said he is trying to prove that the state's governor promised VW additional incentives if it kept the UAW out of the two-year-old Chattanooga plant.
While King declined to discuss efforts at other plants, the UAW has been collecting signature cards at the Mercedes plant near Tuscaloosa, Alabama, and working to win over Nissan workers at the Japanese automaker's plants in Tennessee and Mississippi.
"We have a number of campaigns going on," he said. "We've got some traction, momentum at Mercedes and obviously a lot going on at Nissan. Which one will be next? I don't know for sure. A number of factors will determine that."
However, the production chief for Mercedes, which is owned by Germany's Daimler AG, said at the Frankfurt auto show on Tuesday that the German company had no need for a German-style works council at its plant near Tuscaloosa, Alabama.
Additional reporting by Bernie Woodall in Detroit, Andreas Cremer in Berlin and Jan Schwartz in Hamburg; editing by Matt Driskill and Matthew Lewis