CHATTANOOGA, Tenn./DETROIT (Reuters) - The United Auto Workers union is soliciting signatures of support from workers at Volkswagen AG's U.S. factory, an escalation of its effort to establish a foothold outside the Detroit automakers.
In early March, the UAW started passing out authorization cards for workers to sign in an early formal step needed for union representation, workers at the factory in Chattanooga, Tennessee, told Reuters.
UAW President Bob King has said organizing U.S. plants run by foreign automakers, known in the industry as transplants, is crucial for the union's survival.
After three decades of declining membership, the UAW faces a financial crunch that has been exacerbated by the U.S. economic downturn. This has forced America's richest union to sell assets and dip into its strike fund to pay for activities.
For the past several months, the UAW has met informally with workers at VW's U.S. plant. King has also sought support from German union IG Metall.
U.S. labor laws stipulate that a union must submit signature cards from at least 30 percent of the workers at a plant to hold a representation election.
Not all VW hourly employees have been approached by the union, workers said. The UAW has not told the German automaker about its effort to collect signatures, a VW employee said.
"It's hard to know how much real momentum they have," the person said of the UAW.
Separately, another person familiar with the UAW said it may make an announcement on its organizing efforts in early April. The source did not know if that would involve VW.
The sources asked not to be named discussing the UAW's confidential plans. VW and the UAW declined to comment.
The UAW's efforts were discussed during a closed-door meeting with employees and VW executives at the Chattanooga plant on Thursday morning. Executives were there to announce the addition of 800 jobs at the U.S. plant, where VW builds the Passat sedan.
During the meeting, workers in the audience asked VW executives, including Jonathan Browning, head of North American operations, about the UAW's increased organizing efforts, according to people who attended.
Browning and other executives said the choice for UAW representation was up to the workers, repeating the company's long-held stance. One worker, addressing the crowd, said the plant did not need a union, which was met with loud applause and cheers, people at the meeting said.
"Not too many people around here want a union," said one worker who attended the meeting.
VW's Chattanooga plant employs more than 2,700 people, including salaried employees. About 2,200 were hired by VW and the rest are on contract with staffing company Aerotek.
Newly hired VW workers earn $14.50 an hour and can make up to $19.50 an hour within three years.
A General Motors Co spokesman said the average pay for entry-level GM workers is $17.50 an hour. Veteran workers at GM make an average of $29 per hour.
Historically, plants the American South have been hostile to unions. In 2001, workers at Nissan Motor Co's plant in Smyrna, Tennessee rejected UAW representation two-to-one.
But more than a decade later, King is eager to show a new UAW has emerged from the wreckage of Detroit and that the union can be a better partner with management.
He has cited the union's four-year labor contracts with GM, Ford Motor Co and Chrysler Group LLC last year as an example of the UAW 's flexibility.
Reporting by Bernie Woodall in Chattanooga and Deepa Seetharaman in Detroit; Additional reporting by Ben Klayman in Detroit; editing by Gary Hill and Andre Grenon