NASHVILLE, Tennessee — The United Auto Workers on Thursday unveiled a proposal for creating a German-style works council at Volkswagen plant in Tennessee that is predicated on the automaker recognizing the union as its exclusive bargaining partner.
"It's a chicken-and-the-egg syndrome," UAW Secretary-Treasurer Gary Casteel told reporters in a conference call. "There can't be a works council until the union is recognized to collectively bargain."
The UAW's "Vision Statement for a Collectively Bargained Works Council at Volkswagen Chattanooga" is based on an agreement struck with the German automaker before workers narrowly defeated a union vote at the plant last year.
Following that loss, the UAW's Local 42 has plowed away at signing up workers in its ongoing effort to make the plant the first owned by a foreign automaker to be represented by the union in the South — despite vocal opposition from anti-union Republicans in the state and region.
The union disclosed in a filing with the U.S. Department of Labor last week that it has 816 members, or about 55 percent of the blue collar workforce.
"The UAW represent a majority of the Hourly Unit, and are thus fully entitled to act as exclusive representatives of that unit at VW Chattanooga," according to the UAW proposal.
VW management has been under heavy pressure from worker representatives who make up half of the company's supervisory board because the U.S. plant is alone among the company's worldwide plants without labor representation.
Under the "dual model," wages are bargained through the union, while the works council handles plant-specific matters like working conditions for both hourly and salaried employees.
The union hopes its case for recognition without another contentious vote will be bolstered by a leadership shake-up at Volkswagen that has left Berthold Huber, a former president of the UAW's German counterpart IG Metall, as the interim chairman of the world's No. 2 automaker. Huber in his earlier roles had publicly supported the UAW's efforts to gain recognition at the plant.
"He is a good friend of the UAW, no doubt," Casteel said. "But he also has fiduciary responsibility as the chairman of the supervisory board to VW."
"I don't expect Berthold to do anything just because it's the UAW," he said. "I think he'll do what's in the best interest of the company in every instance."
Volkswagen last year announced plans to expand the Chattanooga plant to build a new SUV aimed at reviving flagging sales in the U.S., but the new model isn't expected to hit dealerships until next year.
The decision to build the new SUV followed months of political tension, with Volkswagen's labor-friendly corporate culture in the political crosshairs of Republicans who fear a UAW foothold among foreign automakers would make the region less competitive for future investment.
A rival workers group called the American Council of Employees, ACE, has formed at the plant to oppose the recognition of the UAW as the company's exclusive bargaining partner.
Volkswagen plant spokesman Scott Wilson cited an internal labor policy established at the plant that establishes regular meetings with management, but stops short of collective bargaining arrangements.
The UAW has qualified for the top tier of that policy for representing at least 45 percent of workers, while ACE has reached the bottom tier of at least 15 percent of employees.
"This policy has been a very effective way to start a dialogue with each of the groups and we intend to continue" with that policy, Wilson said.