NASHVILLE, Tenn. — Top Volkswagen officials are trying to quell fears among Tennessee politicians about efforts to work with a union to create a German-style works council at the automaker’s lone U.S. plant in Chattanooga.
So far the GOP leaders remain unconvinced.
Labor representatives, who make up half of the Wolfsburg, Germany-based automaker’s supervisory board, have pressured VW management to enter discussions with the United Auto Workers about representing workers at the plant because U.S. law would require a works council to be created through an established union.
Bernd Osterloh, the head of the Volkswagen’s global works council and a member of the company’s supervisory board, was among a delegation of company leaders who visited the plant Thursday and later met with Gov. Bill Haslam and fellow Republican U.S. Sen. Bob Corker in Nashville.
In his only U.S. interview, Osterloh told The Associated Press that the pending decision about union representation for workers at the automaker’s lone U.S. plant will have no bearing on whether the company will decide to add the production of a new SUV in Tennessee or in Mexico.
“Those two things have nothing to do with each other,” Osterloh said during the interview, which was conducted in German. “The decision about a vehicle will always be made along economic and employment policy lines. It has absolutely nothing to do with the whole topic about whether there is a union there or not.”
Southern politicians say they fear a successful UAW organization of the Volkswagen plant would hurt the region’s ability to attract future investment, and that it could lead to the spread of organized labor to other foreign car makers.
Haslam told reporters Friday that while his discussion with the Volkswagen executives was informative, his position opposing the UAW remains unchanged because he fears the union would contribute to making the plant less likely to be chosen for expansion.
But labor leaders like Osterloh stress that the Chattanooga plant is alone among major Volkswagen facilities around the world in that it does not have formal worker representation.
The governor said Volkswagen has stressed labor costs and the need for a greater number of nearby suppliers in deciding between Chattanooga and Mexico, he said.
“Well, it’s hard to imagine a scenario in which labor costs are helped by the UAW coming in, and I know that bringing suppliers close would be more difficult,” Haslam said.
“We’ve heard that from suppliers we’ve been working with, saying ‘If the UAW comes I don’t think we’re going to locate one of our facilities near the Chattanooga plant,”’ he said.
In Germany, wages are bargained through the union, while works councils negotiate plant-specific matters such as job security and working conditions for both blue and white collar employees.
“It’s important to note that the issue for us is works councils, not unions,” Osterloh said. “And your law says if I want to transfer authority to a works council, I need to work with a union.”
The UAW has said it has collected signatures from a majority of workers at the plant, meaning Volkswagen could recognize the union without a formal vote. Opponents of the UAW, including Haslam and Corker, have called for a secret ballot.
Osterloh said he takes no position on whether the company should automatically recognize the union, and that it’s up to management to decide whether to require a vote.
“Volkswagen is led by its board, and not by politicians,” he said. “The board will certainly make the right decision.”
Corker, a former Chattanooga mayor, has been among the most vocal critics of unionization efforts at the plant. He has urged Volkswagen to abandon talks with the UAW, suggesting the company would become a “laughingstock” if it welcomed the union into the plant.
Osterloh shrugged off Corker’s comments, and stressed that it’s up to the workers at the plant to decide whether to be organized and by whom.
“The UAW presented itself because they had signed up a percentage of the workers. That’s why the company has started talks with them,” Osterloh said. “Do you know of any other union that has offered to represent workers in Chattanooga?”
A UAW spokeswoman didn’t immediately return a message seeking comment.
Corker’s chief of staff, Todd Womack, in an email called the meeting with the VW delegation a “long, in-depth and candid discussion.”
Osterloh said VW’s decision to build the plant in Tennessee wasn’t an effort to break with the company’s tradition of close cooperation between workers and management.
“Volkswagen considers its corporate culture of works councils a competitive advantage,” he said.