Volkswagen's top managers in Chattanooga have started communicating with plant employees about the automaker's confidential talks last week with the United Auto Workers, telling them in a letter that a works council labor board "can only be realized together with a trade union."
"This is the reason why Volkswagen has started a dialogue with the UAW in order to check the possibility of implementing an innovative model of employee representation for all employees," said the letter signed by Frank Fischer, who heads VW's Chattanooga operations, and plant human resources Vice President Sebastian Patta.
The Chattanooga Times Free Press obtained a copy of the letter, which said the Volkswagen Group respects employees' right to representation at the plant level worldwide.
"This certainly also applies to the Chattanooga plant," said the letter titled "From plant management to team members." It also warned employees about what it termed outside influences.
"Furthermore we jointly want to prevent any attempt of influence from outside driving a wedge into our great team," it said. "We are a strong team. And only as a strong team [do] we achieve top performance and top quality which make our cars in the U.S. successful. This we have proven so far and we jointly want to prove so as well in the future."
The letter noted that there is "very lively discussion" regarding labor representation for plant employees.
"In respect to this please allow us, the plant management, to give one important note: Every single team member takes his or her own decision and this will be respected by us," it said.
United Auto Workers President Bob King and several other top-level union officials met with high-ranking VW representatives last week in Germany to advance earlier talks about a works council at the Chattanooga plant. Some experts have said that such a panel, which could give hourly and salaried employees a venue to discuss plant-related issues, would run afoul of U.S. labor law unless a union is formally involved.
The UAW declined comment Thursday on the letter.
But earlier, King said the union "is very interested in, and has great respect for, the German system of codetermination where the company has strong collaboration with management, unions and works councils."
"I am pleased that Volkswagen, known globally for its system of cooperation with unions and works councils, has an open mind about letting the employees in Chattanooga also be part of the global VW system of co-determination," he said in an email.
VW spokesman Tony Cervone said this week the carmaker is looking at ways to give workers a voice in plant operations. He, too, said any decision on union representation will be up to the employees.
On Wednesday, VW Group of America CEO Jonathan Browning addressed the concept as well, saying VW is looking at "an innovation solution" for Chattanooga plant employees to have a strong voice in the automaker's global works council structure through "a formal vote."
The UAW is seeking to get a majority of the 2,000 or so rank-and-file workers to sign cards authorizing union representation. Union proponents have said the UAW could be recognized by using the signed cards if the company chooses to bypass a secret-ballot election.
While VW and the UAW are talking, some political leaders, including Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam and U.S. Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tenn., have voiced concerns about the plant's potential unionization.
Also Thursday, the National Right to Work Legal Defense Foundation weighed in on the organizing effort, saying in a "special notice" on its website to workers that they don't need a union to talk to management and offering a petition to circulate against unionization.
"If you oppose union representation, signing and circulating such a petition against unionization is perhaps the most important thing that you can do to exercise your legal right to refrain from union representation," the Virginia-based group said.
Spokesman Anthony Riedel said the notice is a way to reach out to employees as the organizing effort ramps up.
"We're considering print and TV options as well," he said.
Foundation President Mark Mix said in a statement: "The UAW's campaign of misrepresentation is meant only to misinform workers into thinking that they have no choice but to unionize."
The notice also said that employees have a legal right not to sign a union authorization card. In addition, the notice said a worker can revoke a union authorization card that he or she may have signed.
Contact Mike Pare at email@example.com or 423-757-6318.