By Andreas Cremer
BERLIN (Reuters) - Volkswagen's top labor leader lent weight on Monday to efforts by U.S. union UAW to represent workers at the German company's U.S. plant, an issue that has raised hackles among some U.S. politicians and other critics of the UAW.
Volkswagen prefers German-style labor representation at the plant through a works council and has held talks with the UAW about how the union can be involved in setting one up.
Currently the workers at VW's plant producing the Passat car in Chattanooga, Tennessee, are not represented by a union.
But the UAW is eager to boost its membership, which has shrunk to about a quarter of the 1.5 million workers it had in 1979, and get a toehold that could allow it to expand among all foreign-owned auto companies.
However, Tennessee Republican Sen. Bob Corker has said it would be a mistake for VW to allow the UAW to organize workers at its Tennessee plant. Last month, Corker called that possibility a "job-destroying idea" and said it would make the German automaker a "laughingstock in the business world.
Bernd Osterloh, head of VW's global works council, said in a statement that forming a council was important if the plant wanted to produce other VW cars and that he would keep talking with the UAW.
VW is considering the idea of building a seven-passenger crossover utility vehicle at the Chattanooga plant rather than at its plant in Puebla, Mexico, where it already assembles the Jetta compact car and the New Beetle, a U.S. executive of VW said last month.
"We know how important that (second) vehicle is for Chattanooga," said Osterloh, who as deputy chairman of VW has a say on production decisions.
"In the interests of our U.S. colleagues, we're open to such an allocation (of an order)." Osterloh, also a member of the IG Metall engineering union, said the UAW was prepared to cede some of its rights to a works council.
Osterloh said he wanted to involve Republicans and Democrats in negotiations about a works council plan once the legal issues are clarified but said the VW principle of involving staff and management in running plants, called co-determination, was not negotiable.
He said he plans to meet politicians and other supporters and opponents of the UAW in the United States in the next few weeks.
The UAW would like VW voluntarily to recognize the U.S. union as the best choice to represent workers in Tennessee.
The UAW says it has support of a majority of Chattanooga VW's 1,567 blue-collar workers, and has collected signatures on cards authorizing that the union represent them.
However, an anti-UAW petition signed by 563 VW Chattanooga hourly employees was delivered last Friday to plant executives, said Mike Burton, the leader of the petition drive.
Burton said that most of the signatures on the anti-UAW petition were gathered within two weeks. Burton, who works in the plant's paint shop, said he and a few co-workers will continue to collect signed petitions with a goal of attaining a majority of the 1,567 hourly workers.
Some 88 of VW's 104 plants worldwide have works councils, but U.S. labor laws require any such council to be recognized through a U.S. trade union. Tennessee Governor Bill Haslam and Senator Corker are both opposed to the UAW.
A UAW success at Chattanooga could alter the industrial relations landscape for foreign carmakers in the United States, opening the door to similar efforts at plants owned by Germany's Mercedes in Alabama and BMW in South Carolina, and possibly those owned by Japanese and South Korean automakers, analysts have said.
Corker has come out against any UAW influence over car plants in the South because he blames the union in part for the demise of Detroit as the heart of the U.S. industry.
(Additional reporting by Bernie Woodall in Detroit; Editing by Patrick Lannin, Greg Mahlich and Ken Wills)