NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — By giving labor groups more access to its lone U.S. plant in Tennessee, Volkswagen signaled Wednesday that it won't follow the lead of other foreign-owned automakers in the South in seeking to tamp down union activity.
The company's new policy has given hope to both supporters and opponents of efforts by the United Auto Workers to unionize its first foreign-owned plant in the region.
The outcome of the union drive at the Chattanooga plant is being closely monitored by other German and Asian automakers in the region, and by Republican officials who dread the prospect of a UAW breaking its losing streak among what the union refers to as the "transplants."
The company's new policy gives labor groups that sign up at least 15 percent of the plant's workers access to plant facilities and to regular meetings with management. It comes on the heels of news that Volkswagen and the UAW have reached an agreement on future recognition of the union at the plant.
Volkswagen said its policy is aimed at developing a "constructive dialogue" between workers and management. Volkswagen management has been under heavy pressure from powerful worker representatives who control half of the automaker's board in Germany because the U.S. plant is alone among the company's worldwide plants without labor representation.
Frank Patta, the general secretary of Volkswagen's Global Works Council, said he welcomes the new policy as a step toward greater cooperation between plant management and the UAW.
"This is a good day for our American colleagues and the union movement in Chattanooga," Patta said in a statement.
The same law requiring labor representation on the Volkswagen board also applies to other German automakers with factories in the South, like BMW and Mercedes parent Daimler. The UAW has so far failed to make inroads at those companies' plants in Alabama and South Carolina, and Republican officials there have been keen to keep it that way.
The UAW has also been rebuffed in its efforts to represent workers at Japanese automakers like Nissan in Tennessee and Mississippi.
Benjamin Sachs, a labor law professor at Harvard University, said Volkswagen's new policies "could be important to the United Auto Workers' organizing efforts" in Chattanooga.
Voluntarily providing access to the plant for meetings, notices and other activities is a departure from the practices of most companies where "the worksite is off limits for union organizing, by and large," Sachs said.
The policy would base the level of access to meeting facilities and frequency of meetings with plant management on a sliding scale pegged to whether they represent 15, 30 or 45 percent of workers at the plant.
Sachs said the policy could signal Volkswagen's interest in pursuing a "minority union" model, where more than one labor group could represent workers at the plant. That would be in contrast to the current practice where a union gaining more than 50 percent or workers becomes the exclusive bargaining partner for a plant.
The UAW, which narrowly lost a union vote at the plant in February, has cited written agreements with top Volkswagen management and board members as giving the union assurances it would be recognized as the representatives of its members at the plant.
"We believe Volkswagen made this commitment in good faith and we believe the company will honor this commitment," said Gary Casteel, the secretary-treasurer of the UAW.
Volkswagen and the union reached an agreement last spring under which the UAW said it would cooperate with efforts to win production of a new SUV in Chattanooga, and that it would drop its National Labor Relations Board challenge alleging outside interference by Republican officials and anti-union groups in the February union vote.
In return, Volkswagen committed to recognizing the UAW, according to the letter signed by Mike Cantrell and Steve Cochran, the president and vice president of UAW's Local 42.
Casteel said the local has signed up a majority of workers at the plant, and will soon submit to Volkswagen's verification process, outlined in the policy.
But workers who spearheaded the 712-626 defeat of the UAW in the February union vote have created their own organization called the American Council of Employees.
"To me it's evidence that the policy is intended to present employees with a clear choice and an alternative to the Detroit-led failed alternative," said Sean Moss, the group's interim president.
Moss said his group wants Volkswagen to "level the playing field" by only counting cards signed by workers after the new policy was announced Wednesday.
"It's a whole new ballgame," he said "Now they really know the choices in front of them and we want them to have a fair opportunity to decide."