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US auto union close to big win thanks to Volkswagen

DETROIT--American labor leaders are closing in on a decades-long goal of organizing a factory run by a foreign automaker, thanks to a bridgehead opened up at Germany's Volkswagen.

While a vote has not yet been scheduled, the United Auto Workers says that a majority of the 1,700 workers at VW's plant in Chattanooga, Tennessee have signed cards asking for union representation.

A win at VW would increase pressure on fellow German automakers BMW and Daimler AG to open the door to unionization efforts at their U.S. facilities.

It could even boost the union's claims for recognition at factories run by Japan's Nissan, Honda and Toyota and South Korea's Kia and Hyundai.

Despite strong traditions of organized labor in their home countries, German, Japanese and South Korean automakers have strongly resisted unionization efforts in the United States.

Most of their plants are located in southern states where anti-union sentiments run high and “right to work” laws make it difficult for unions to get a foothold.

The foreign carmakers have also kept workers satisfied by offering wages and benefits that are in line with, or even exceed, those won by unions at General Motors, Ford and Chrysler plants.

But European unions — facing plant closures at home amidst a deep and lengthy downturn — have been pressuring VW and other German carmakers to give U.S. workers a seat on their global works councils, which gives employees a say in the management of the company.

“The German unions want to see those plants unionized,” said John Russo, a labor specialist at Virginia Tech University.

“They think it is important to their future. They don't want labor relations in Germany to follow an American model.”

Unions a Hard Sell in South

Convincing southern workers to pay union dues isn't easy, especially after the United Auto Workers was blamed for the downfall of the Detroit Three carmakers.

The layoff of 500 temporary workers as a result of slowing sales of VW's Passat has increased job security concerns.

Improved labor relations as a result of the major concessions the UAW made to help GM and Chrysler emerge from bankruptcy protection have also helped.

But the UAW has VW management to thank for much of its success.

The German automaker opened talks with the union in September to find a way to get its workers in Tennessee a seat on the German automaker's global works council.

Such councils are only allowed in the United States if they include union representatives.

Then in December, VW abruptly ousted Jonathan Browning — who had spoken publicly about his opposition to the UAW — as head of U.S. operations.

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