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Volkswagen managers have confirmed in a letter to employees that the automaker is in talks with the United Auto Workers about establishing a German-style "works council" at its Tennessee assembly plant.
The letter, obtained by The Associated Press on Thursday, said the talks with the UAW center on "the possibility of implementing an innovative model of employee representation for all employees."
The letter is signed by the plant's chairman and CEO, Frank Fischer, and by Sebastian Patta, the facility's vice president for human resources. A VW spokesman declined to comment.
Southern Republicans have expressed concern about the UAW gaining a new foothold among foreign automakers in the region. Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam and U.S. Sen. Bob Corker, both Republicans, have argued that inroads by the union would hurt the state's ability to lure other large manufacturers to the state. There is also a concern that if the UAW is successful at Volkswagen, unionization efforts could gain steam among other German automakers like Mercedes in Alabama and BMW in South Carolina.
But the Wolfsburg, Germany-based company has faced pressure from labor representatives on its supervisory board, who have called it unfair for the company to deal with organized labor at every one of its major facilities around the world except at its lone U.S. plant, in Chattanooga. A decision on whether to build another model in Tennessee could also hinge on the creation of a works council.
"The Volkswagen Group respects the employees' right for an employee representation on plant level at all locations worldwide," the letter from the plant managers said. "This certainly also applies to the Chattanooga plant."
The discussion with the UAW is necessary because a works council can only be established in the United States through an established trade union, according to the letter. Some experts have disputed whether that's a requirement, and politicians such as Corker have suggested the UAW should be left out of a works council at the plant.
It's unclear what parameters the company is seeking to negotiate with the UAW, including whether a works council agreement could fall short of full collective bargaining at the plant.
Fischer and Patta stressed in the letter that it will be up to the workers to decide how they want to be represented, but called for fostering a cooperative spirit. They wrote that they want to prevent any attempt by outside influences from "driving a wedge into our great team."
Associated Press Auto Writer Tom Krisher in Detroit contributed to this report.