The United Auto Workers union is hoping a management overhaul at Volkswagen in the aftermath of its diesel emissions cheating scandal will help ease an impasse over collective bargaining at the German automaker's lone U.S. plant.
But on a visit to Chattanooga last week, new Volkswagen CEO Matthias Mueller said he hasn't yet made up his mind about politically sensitive labor issues at the factory.
"My agenda of course has been heavily dominated by the diesel issue so far," Mueller told The Associated Press after a speech to workers on the factory floor.
"Surely we must take a few weeks to understand and relate to this very complex topic," he said about the unsettled union issues at the plant.
Volkswagen was forced to admit last year that about 600,000 diesel vehicles — including 90,000 Passat sedans made at the Chattanooga plant — were sold with illegal software designed to trick government emissions tests. Efforts to find a fix have failed so far.
Gary Casteel, secretary-treasurer of the UAW and head of the union's efforts to organize foreign automakers, acknowledged that "Volkswagen is under new management and that company officials have a lot on their plate right now."
Casteel nevertheless expressed hope that the new leadership "will provide an opportunity, soon, to reset the dialogue."
The UAW has been thwarted for decades in its attempts to organize foreign automakers in the South amid heavy opposition from manufacturers and Republican politicians wary of seeing the union gaining a foothold in the region.
Volkswagen is seen as the UAW's best chance to make inroads with a foreign automaker in the South because of the strong labor presence on the company's supervisory board in Germany. Those leaders chafe at the Chattanooga plant being alone among company's worldwide facilities without formal labor representation.
In the run-up to a 2014 union vote at the plant, the UAW agreed with Volkswagen to pursue a German-style "works council" that would represent both salaried and hourly employees at the plant. Despite the close working relationship between the company and union, the UAW lost that election on a 712-626 vote amid heavy opposition from anti-labor groups and Republicans like U.S. Sen. Bob Corker.
The UAW changed tactics last year by seeking a new election covering only the roughly 160 skilled-trades workers specializing in the repair and maintenance of machinery and robots at the plant, and not the remaining 1,250 hourly production workers.
The union won that election last month on a 108-44 vote despite public opposition from Volkswagen management. But the celebration was short-lived, as Volkswagen filed an appeal to the National Labor Relations Board and has refused to engage in collective bargaining with the union. The challenge is still pending with the federal panel.
Volkswagen's hardball approach may please longtime Republican critics about the company's labor stance, but doesn't play as well among the worker representatives who wield considerable clout back in Germany.
But like Mueller, much of Volkswagen management has been focused on the fallout from the emissions cheating scandal, which has dealt a severe blow to the company's reputation.
The UAW's Casteel said he hopes labor issues don't fall by the wayside.
"We're hopeful Volkswagen will recommit to core principles like co-determination, adhere to federal law and begin collective bargaining," he said.