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Detroit's Big Three May Gain as UAW Sets Sights on VW in Tennessee

UAW organizing efforts at Toyota Motor Corp's plant in Georgetown, Kentucky, have also prompted the Japanese carmaker to raise wages and benefits, say industry monitors.

A UAW local at Chattanooga "might be a positive for the Detroit companies," Ken Elias, an industry consultant for MaryAnn Keller & Associates, which sells its research to fund managers, investment banks and auto manufacturers, said in a phone interview. "That is, it might impose UAW-style contract negotiations on at least one foreign plant, if it gets organized. If the rest of the South got organized, then nobody would have an advantage, at least that's from the UAW perspective."

General Motors spokeswoman Katie McBride in an e-mail said that "we don't comment on organizing efforts of negotiations at other companies." Ford spokeswoman Kristina Adamski wasn't immediately available. Officials at Volkswagen in Chattanooga didn't respond to requests for comment.

For the Detroit-based UAW, which has lost more than three-quarters of its auto employee members since 1985, winning a certification vote at VW's Passat plant in Chattanooga would represent an enormous milestone in the history of U.S. labor. The archipelago of foreign-owned auto plants stretching from Nissan Motor Co. in Tennessee to BMW and Daimler in South Carolina, Hyundai Motor Corp. and Kia Motors Corp. in Georgia, Mercedes-Benz in Alabama and Toyota Motor Corp. in Mississippi have used anti-union state laws and vocal support from local politicians to consistently defeat the auto workers union.

UAW President Bob King met late last month with Volkswagen officials at the company's headquarters in Wolfsburg, Germany. At issue was a UAW proposal to form a German-style "works council," a body commonly used at VW's home plants to involve union representatives in non-financial decisions such as employee scheduling and production standards. Representatives of Germany's powerful metalworkers union IG Metall sit on VW's works council.

"For the UAW, this means a lot," Elias said in a phone interview from Scottsdale, Arizona. "They've been trying to get a beachhead in the plants in the South for God knows how long. The most important thing for the UAW is to get more members, because more members means dues and gives them more political clout."

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