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(Reuters) - Workers at Volkswagen AG's (VOWG_p.DE) plant in Chattanooga, Tennessee, will decide whether they want union representation, and the United Auto Workers is just one option for them, VW's top executive in North America said on Wednesday.
Jonathan Browning, head of Volkswagen of America, said in an interview at the New York auto show that the company expects Chattanooga plant workers to have a strong voice in its operations.
"We certainly are interested in hearing from the employees as to whether they believe formal representation is something that they desire," he told Reuters.
"If employees vote in favor of formal representation, then it's important to understand that there are a number of alternatives that may or may not include the UAW."
Browning said no such vote has been scheduled and the issue is in the very early stages of discussions. He added that as far as he knew VW's supervisory board also had not discussed the issue officially.
Historically, auto plants in the American South have been hostile to unions. In March 2012 the UAW tried to get signatures of support from workers at the VW Chattanooga plant. The efforts never gained traction.
Earlier this month, a letter from a top official at IG Metall, the union that represents VW workers in Germany, to Chattanooga plant workers urged them to join the UAW.
Also this month, Horst Neumann, VW's board member in charge of human resources, said the company was in exploratory talks with the UAW about setting up a German-style labor board at the Tennessee factory. Browning said the IG Metall letter and Horst's comments "moved the discussion along further."
If the plant's workers decided to join the UAW, they would be the first workforce of a foreign-owned major auto assembly plant to do so in recent years.
Expanding his union's membership by organizing an assembly plant of a foreign automaker has been a goal by UAW President Bob King since his tenure began in mid-2010. The UAW is hoping that the endorsement of the influential German union IG Metall will boost its efforts to organize workers in Chattanooga.
VW's U.S. officials have long held the view that its workers in Tennessee will decide whether to accept the UAW as their voice in negotiations. Browning on Wednesday said the alternatives could include other unions or the hourly workers at the Chattanooga plant possibly forming their own union. He called the creation of a new union a "remote possibility."
Browning said he had no idea what the time table for the issue might be, but said it was "complex" and would take time to work out. "There are a lot of people engaged and participating in the discussion so I wouldn't expect a quick resolution."
The union is also active in talking about organizing with workers at two Nissan Motor Co (7201.T) plants, which are in small cities near Jackson, Mississippi, and Nashville, Tennessee.
Nissan Chief Executive Carlos Ghosn said at the auto show on Wednesday that it wasn't the first nor would it be the last time the UAW tries to organize his company's U.S. plants. He said the workers at those plants would decide that issue, but added the company prefers direct communication with its employees.
Ghosn more directly opposed the UAW in 2001. As a union vote was drawing near at the company's plant in Smyrna, Tennessee, Ghosn made a big-screen video pitch to workers at the plant. "Bringing a union into Smyrna could result in making Smyrna not competitive," he said.
Smyrna workers turned back the UAW, 3,103 to 1,486.
Also at the auto show on Wednesday, Hyundai Motor (005380.KS) America head John Krafcik declined to comment on the UAW's desire to organize the company's U.S. plants. A spokeswoman for Daimler AG's Mercedes (DAIGn.DE) said the German automaker was neutral on the subject and union representation at the company's Alabama plant was up to the workers.
Browning also said on Wednesday that VW is studying building a mid-sized SUV based on a concept vehicle shown at the Detroit auto show in January and officials have said a decision is expected some time this year. He said such a vehicle would be built in North America, but that would be decided as part of the process.
Reporting by Bernie Woodall and Ben Klayman; Editing by Gerald E. McCormick, Andrew Hay and Lisa Shumaker