Volkswagen Group of America's chief executive said Wednesday the automaker's Chattanooga workforce will decide on a works council labor board at the plant through "a formal vote," and the result may or may not include third-party representation such as a union.
"That process has to run its course," said Jonathan Browning during a conference call with analysts and reporters on the automaker's August U.S. sales results. "Those realities haven't changed."
The CEO was responding to a question related to talks between top VW and United Auto Workers officials last week in Wolfsburg, Germany, over the potential of a works council at the Chattanooga factory. Some experts have said that such a panel, which could include hourly and salaried employees to discuss plant-related issues, would run afoul of U.S. labor law unless a union is formally involved.
The UAW has been asking a majority of rank and file workers at the plant to sign cards authorizing the union to represent them. Union proponents have said that the UAW could be recognized by using the signed cards if the company chooses to bypass a secret-ballot election.
Browning said VW is looking for "an innovative solution" that permits Chattanooga plant employees to have a strong voice in the automaker's global works council structure.
"The decision is up to the employees," he said.
The UAW on Wednesday declined comment.
Gary Chaison, a professor of labor relations at Clark University in Worcester, Mass., said it would take "tremendous flexibility" for the UAW to agree to a works council that falls short of traditional collective bargaining.
"Some people will see this as unions getting a foot in the door and asking for more," he said. "But some within the labor movement would say we've got the wrong foot in the wrong door, and we should be trying for collective bargaining and nothing more."
Carol Daugherty Rasnic, an international and labor law professor at Virginia Commonwealth University, said U.S. law is largely silent on works councils. An agreement between a workers group and the company would be covered by "plain old fundamental contract law," she said.
Some of Tennessee's top Republican politicians, such as Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam and U.S. Sen. Bob Corker, have questioned the idea of UAW representation at the plant.
Corker has said that the discussion already is having a negative affect on economic development recruitment.
"Already it's impacting very directly our state's efforts," he said.
Corker said UAW representation at the Chattanooga plant would be "a step backward. I hope it will never happen." But he, too, said the decision will be up to the factory's employees.
The Associated Press contributed to this story.