By Bernie Woodall and Ben Klayman
DETROIT (Reuters) - Volkswagen AG and the United Auto Workers said they are in talks about the U.S. union's bid to represent workers at the German carmaker's Tennessee plant, which would be a milestone in the UAW's long-running effort to organize foreign-owned auto plants.
Volkswagen officials, in a letter distributed to workers at the Chattanooga, Tennessee plant on Thursday night and Friday morning shifts, said worker representation at the plant can only be realized by joining with a U.S. trade union.
"In the U.S., a works council can only be realized together with a trade union," Fischer's letter says. "This is the reason why Volkswagen has started a dialogue with the UAW in order to check the possibility of implementing an innovative model of employee representation for all employees."
The letter to the 2,500 Chattanooga workers was signed by Frank Fischer, chief operating officer and manager of the plant, and Sebastian Patta, head of human resources in Chattanooga.
UAW President Bob King has been trying without success thus far to organize foreign-owned, U.S.-based auto plants to bolster membership in the union, which has fallen from its peak in the late 1970s. The UAW has been working with the German union IG Metall to try to organize workers at the Volkswagen plant.
King is open to what Fischer called "an innovative model" in order to gain acceptance by workers at foreign-owned auto plants, which are primarily in the U.S. South.
"VW workers in Chattanooga have the unique opportunity to introduce this new model of labor relations to the United States, in partnership with the UAW," the UAW said in a statement on Friday morning.
"If Bob King can get his foot in the door at Chattanooga, even if it's just a works council, it's pretty significant," a former auto executive at a foreign automaker with U.S. plants, who wished to remain anonymous, said earlier this week.
On Wednesday, during a call about Volkswagen's U.S. sales, Jonathan Browning, head of the company in the United States, said: "We've been very clear that that process has to run its course, that no management decision has been made and that it may or may not conclude with formal third-party representation."
Browning also said that ultimately, the decision on whether to have third-party representation will be decided by Chattanooga's workers by a formal vote.
There was no indication in the letter to workers when such a vote would be held.
The UAW also confirmed that King met last Friday with VW executives and officials from the company's "global works council," which represents VW blue- and white-collar employees around the world.
The UAW said last week's meeting, "focused on the appropriate paths, consistent with American law, for arriving at both Volkswagen recognition of UAW representation at its Chattanooga facility and establishment of a German-style works council."
At VW plants, workers are represented by so-called works councils, which include laborers as well as executives who cooperate to determine issues ranging from company strategy to job conditions. They do not negotiate wages or benefits.
Volkswagen has about 100 plants worldwide, and all of them except for the Chattanooga factory and the company's six plants joint venture plants in China have such a council, an expression of the company's belief in what it calls "co-determination."
While the UAW, and VW in its letter to Chattanooga workers, say that a U.S. trade union must be allied with any group of workers at a foreign-owned company, some disagree.
"Volkswagen workers can discuss their work with their employer without UAW unionization," Mark Mix, president of the anti-union National Right to Work Foundation, said in a statement on Thursday.
"The UAW's campaign of misrepresentation is meant only to misinform workers into thinking that they have no choice but to unionize."
The anti-union organization is based in Virginia.
(Editing by Gerald E. McCormick)