NASHVILLE, Tenn. – A top Volkswagen labor official says a 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 another vehicle there.
The world’s third-largest automaker, which is mulling whether to make a new SUV in Mexico or Tennessee, shocked Southern union foes by engaging in talks with the United Auto Workers about creating a German-style “works council” at the Chattanooga, Tenn., plant.
Southern politicians say that 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 carmakers.
But labor leaders like Bernd Osterloh, head of the Volkswagen’s global works councils and a member of the company’s supervisory board, stress that the Chattanooga plant is alone among major Volkswagen facilities around the world in that it does not have formal worker representation.
Osterloh visited the plant Thursday and later met with Gov. Bill Haslam and fellow Republican Sen. Bob Corker in Nashville. In his only U.S. interview, Osterloh told the Associated Press that while the company’s dedication to “co-determination” supports the creation of works councils at all its plants, market forces will decide whether the Chattanooga plant is expanded.
“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.”
Labor representatives, who make up half of the Wolfsburg, Germany-based automaker’s supervisory board, have pressured VW management to enter discussions about union representation at the Chattanooga plant because U.S. law would require a works council to be created through an established union.
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, which means 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 that 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.”
Haslam told reporters Friday that 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.
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.