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Volkswagen AG said Monday it is granting the United Auto Workers union access rights after an audit showed it has the support of at least 45 percent of workers at the company’s Chattanooga, Tenn., assembly plant.

The UAW said it will move forward with its bid to be recognized as the collective bargaining agent for the 1,500 workers at the plant.

The decision is a big victory for the Detroit union that has long sought unsuccessfully to gain a foothold in foreign assembly plants — but is far short of winning the right to bargain on wages and benefits for all employees at the plant.

The decision means the UAW’s Local 42 will be able meet bi-weekly with Volkswagen Human Resources and monthly with the Volkswagen Chattanooga Executive Committee to talk about issues. It also enables the union to reserve and utilize on-site locations for meetings on non-work time with staff or employees.

But anti-union groups also have also vowed to try to get recognized under the policy announced in November. VW said then that getting 45 percent support “may not be used by any group” to be named “as the exclusive representative of any group of employees for the purposes of collective bargaining.”

Gary Casteel, secretary-treasurer of the UAW, who heads the International Union’s Transnational Department, praised VW’s “timely response in verifying UAW Local 42’s substantial membership level, which exceeds a majority of workers at the plant.”

Neither the UAW nor VW disclosed the exact membership level — only that it was at least 45 percent.

The UAW said “local leadership is ready to move forward with additional conversations with the company. As a starting point, UAW Local 42 will take advantage of the company’s offer to establish bi-weekly meetings with Volkswagen Human Resources and the Volkswagen Chattanooga Executive Committee.”

Casteel said the union “will remind Human Resources and the Chattanooga Executive Committee of the mutually agreed-upon commitments that were made by Volkswagen and the UAW last spring in Germany. Among those commitments: Volkswagen will recognize the UAW as the representative of our members. We believe Volkswagen made this commitment in good faith and we believe the company will honor this commitment.”

In a note to employees that was obtained by The Detroit News, VW said it “will reach out to the UAW in the near future to start the discussion regarding the opportunities available to them under the policy.”

Harley Shaiken, a labor professor at the University of California, Berkeley, said Monday the policy “is not collective bargaining. But it is a step in the direction of recognition, which ultimately could lead to collective bargaining. This is not the end point.”

The next step could be a future election or VW could ultimately opt to recognize the UAW down the road if the UAW had a majority of support. It’s not clear what’s next. “We don’t know what’s next. We’re in unchartered territory,” Shaiken said.

The VW decision granting the UAW access but not authority as the collective bargaining agent is nearly unprecedented in U.S. labor history. While it may make it easier to win eventual recognition, it’s not clear what it means the long term — especially if anti-UAW forces win access as well.

In mid-November, the German automaker said it would not immediately recognize the UAW until an external audit established its membership level — and it opened the door to working with other groups representing employees. VW’s policy requires a union to get at least 45 percent of eligible employees in a specific group to join.

The UAW suffered a big setback in February, when workers voted 712-626 to reject creation of a German-style works council. The vote came after heavy pressure from Republican lawmakers. In July, the UAW opted to form a local to represent workers in Chattanooga, rather than hold another election.

VW has more than 100 plants worldwide, and only the Chattanooga plant is non-union.

In July, VW said it would commit $900 million and create 2,000 jobs to build mid-size SUVs in Tennessee.

DShepardson@detroitnews.com

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