| DETROIT, March 18
DETROIT, March 18 The United Auto Workers union
could soon get a big boost in its efforts to represent hourly
workers at Volkswagen AG's assembly plant in
Horst Neumann, VW's board member in charge of human
resources, told reporters on Friday that the automaker was in
talks with the UAW about setting up a German-style labor board
at the Tennessee plant. It was an about-face for a company that
has resisted opening the U.S. plant to the UAW.
UAW President Bob King, who has said organizing U.S. plants
run by foreign automakers is crucial for the union's survival,
welcomed Neumann's comments and the German system where labor
has a say in how companies are run.
King described them as "completely consistent with the UAW's
21st century model of unionism" that centers on a less
adversarial relationship with companies.
"The UAW is very interested in the specific model that VW
wants to present in the months ahead, and we are looking forward
to open, fair and respectful dialogue, and cooperation with VW
as we have expressed in our vision of the 21st century UAW," he
said in a statement.
Neumann said the company may release a plan for the works
council labor board in May or June and formal talks with a union
could begin as soon as the second half of the year if VW's
managing board approves, according to Automotive News and the
Detroit News. A VW spokesman confirmed the comments, adding
Neumann also said the UAW is not the only option.
If the UAW gains a foothold in VW's Tennessee plant, which
opened in 2011 and builds the Passat sedan, it could be a
transformative moment, potentially opening the door to
representing workers at Mercedes and BMW's
"This truly represents a breakthrough if it takes place,"
said Harley Shaiken, a University of California-Berkeley labor
studies professor, adding that such an agreement could spread to
Japanese and South Korean-owned U.S. plants.
However, federal officials may interpret U.S. labor law as
requiring a plant's workers to recognize a union before the
German model can be implemented, said Arthur Schwartz, president
of Labor and Economics Associates of Ann Arbor, Michigan.
Historically, plants in 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.
More than a decade later, King has been eager to show a new
UAW has emerged from the wreckage of Detroit and the union can
be a better partner with management.
He previously has cited the union's four-year labor
contracts with General Motors Co, Ford Motor Co and
Chrysler Group LLC in 2011 as an example of the UAW 's
In the past, executives at the various German automakers
with U.S. plants have declined to discuss the UAW's push to
organize their plants. Privately, they have voiced wariness
about the union and its confrontational past.
When the UAW restarted efforts to organize foreign-owned
U.S. plants, it initially targeted the German automakers because
of the supervisory board seats held by labor officials at
companies in that country. The UAW has since supported local
efforts to organize workers at Nissan's plant in Canton,
King has been keen to foster more cooperation between global
trade unions in an increasingly global auto industry. However,
officials at the German union IG Metall previously have taken a
more hands-off approach to helping the UAW despite not wanting
the U.S. market to become a cheap-labor alternative to Germany.
Whether that has changed is not clear, but IG Metall has
assisted the UAW before. In 1978, IG Metall helped the UAW
organize the first big foreign factory in the United States,
VW's Westmoreland Assembly Plant in Pennsylvania.
In that case, IG Metall told VW to look favorably on the
UAW's efforts. The message was, "Help them organize, or else,"
said a former senior VW executive, who asked not to be
In public, VW executives previously noted that workers
already took part in corporate decisions, under co-determination
policies first enforced by British military officers in Germany
after World War Two.
"We have said that we want our employees to have a strong
voice in our operations in Chattanooga, based on the social
charter of the company, and believe we are operating with those
principles," VW U.S. spokesman Tony Cervone said. "We have
always said that any choice of formal representation by a union
in the U.S. will be based on a vote of the workers at the
In March 2012, the UAW solicited signatures of support from
workers at the Chattanooga plant, escalating efforts to
establish a foothold outside the U.S. automakers.
The UAW's efforts, which never gained traction, were
discussed during a closed-door meeting with employees and VW
executives at the Chattanooga plant in late March last year.
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.