VW, UAW pushing for talks on work council for Chattanooga plant

VW, UAW pushing for talks on work council for Chattanooga plant

September 4th, 2013 by Mike Pare and Andy Sher in Business Around the Region

New Volkswagen Passats are seen behind the Chattanooga assembly plant's building.

Photo by Dan Henry/Times Free Press.

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Gov. Bill Haslam speaks at Volkswagen Chattanooga in this file photo.

Photo by Doug Strickland/Times Free Press.

POLL: Should the VW plant be unionized?

The United Auto Workers and Volkswagen are pushing ahead on talks related to the set up of a possible works council at the automaker's Chattanooga plant, but Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam says he still has concerns about the union gaining a toehold at the factory.

A German newspaper said that VW and the UAW had confidential talks at the automaker's headquarters in Wolfsburg, Germany, stating that UAW President Bob King traveled with others in the union last weekend to meet with Horst Neumann, the company's board member for human resources. In the discussions, Volkswagen works council head Bernd Osterloh also participated, said the business daily Handelsblatt.

Earlier this year, Neumann said VW was talking with the UAW about the German-style works council concept for the plant, which is the only one of its assembly factories worldwide without that type of labor board. Some experts have said that a works council would run afoul of U.S. labor law if no union is formally involved.

The UAW has been seeking the signatures of the majority of VW's rank and file workers in Chattanooga for authorization to represent them.

VW spokesman Tony Cervone said VW is looking at ways to give workers a voice in plant operations. He added that a decision on union representation would be up to the workers. Union supporters have said the UAW can be recognized at the plant by using the signed cards if the company chooses to bypass a secret-ballot election..

The UAW did not comment on the newspaper report.

Haslam, however, told reporters in Shelbyville that he has concerns on two or three fronts.

"No. 1, we have a [VW] plant and system that is working really well right now," the governor said. "No. 2, we have heard from other folks [companies] we're recruiting that that would be a damper on their enthusiasm for Tennessee."

Haslam added "we also are having a lot of conversations with Volkswagen. We feel very comfortable with our conversations with them." The governor did not elaborate.

Joe Atkins, a University of Mississippi professor who follows labor issues, said UAW chief King has made unionizing the U.S. plant of a foreign automaker such as VW his legacy before he leaves office, which under current union bylaws would be next year.

"He had made this what he wants to achieve before he leaves -- to get this done," Atkins said.

VW also is considering investing in Chattanooga as officials mull whether to put production of a new sport utility vehicle in Tennessee or at its facilities in Mexico. A decision on that project is expected to come late this year or early 2014, but a top works council official in Germany this summer linked the Chattanooga plant expansion and the establishment of such a labor panel at the factory.

The Associated Press contributed to this story.

Contact Mike Pare at mpare@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6318.