King, 66, said he has seen the merits of the German model firsthand since his appointment last year to the supervisory board of General Motors' German subsidiary, Adam Opel AG. Under so-called codetermination laws in Germany, union leaders or other employee representatives get as many as half the seats on supervisory boards that have a say over a company's major investments and hold the power to hire and fire top executives.
Workers at Opel and other German companies also vote for representatives on "works councils" that make decisions on benefits, hours and working conditions.
"It's a great system," King said. "The works councils, the supervisory board, the codetermination, to me, all give workers a stronger voice and therefore make the company more successful. We would be really open to building that kind of a system in the U.S., through the UAW contracts with a number of different employers."
That could include Detroit 3 assembly plants, King said. UAW locals negotiate their own contracts, but King said the union shares best practices with its locals and that the German model could be an option for those plants as well.
King said the UAW has worked closely with IG Metall, the German industrial union, which represents most workers at Opel and other German automakers.
Horst Mund, the international head at IG Metall, said other German companies with large U.S. operations might follow the UAW's lead, but they are waiting "until this thing sees the light of day" to decide whether it would work.
"The interest is there," Mund said.
Appealing to Nissan
King became UAW president in 2010 and steps down next year because union age restrictions prohibit him from serving another term.
He has spent his tenure trying to shed a reputation for combativeness that has made international brands wary of the union when setting up factories in the United States. He also has staked his legacy on his ability to organize foreign-owned plants in the South.
Aside from a Mitsubishi plant in Normal, Ill., which started as a joint venture with Chrysler, no foreign-owned assembly plants in the United States currently have UAW contracts.
King said the more collaborative German model could work at the plants in the South that the UAW has long aspired to organize. In addition to organizing efforts at the Volkswagen plant in Chattanooga, the union has ongoing campaigns at the Nissan plant in Canton, Miss., and the Mercedes-Benz plant in Vance, Ala.
"We're talking to the workers at Nissan, and that's the approach we keep appealing to Nissan to use: a more collaborative approach than this traditional adversarial route," said Gary Casteel, the director of UAW's Region 8, which includes Tennessee, Mississippi and Alabama.
The campaign in Canton is the UAW's third attempt to organize a Nissan plant. UAW officials have said Nissan managers at the plant intimidate workers and have made threats about the plant closing if it is organized.
King said Wednesday that Nissan is violating the human rights of workers in Mississippi and Tennessee.
"The Japanese should allow for a fair democratic election process in Mississippi," he said. "They should make American managers live up to the global standards they say they support and believe in and endorse."
A Nissan spokesman said today that King's comments are unfounded.
"Nissan respects the rights of our employees to decide whether or not to join a union, and we follow the letter and spirit of all labor laws," the company wrote in an e-mail.
"Nissan employees in Canton enjoy jobs that are among the most secure in Mississippi, some of the highest manufacturing wages in the state, strong benefits, a working environment that exceeds industry standards, and an open dialogue based on transparency and mutual respect."
Optimism on VW
The front line of King's push for German-style labor relations is here, in Chattanooga, where the UAW and VW are in talks about organizing workers at the plant that builds the Passat sedan.
A successful push in Chattanooga would be a symbolic and strategic victory for the UAW, which has struggled to organize workers in the new generation of foreign-owned auto plants that have opened in the United States over the past two decades.
King has looked to these plants, especially in right-to-work states across the South, as the UAW's best hope to replenish its membership rolls, which stood at 382,513 at the end of 2012, down from a peak of 1.5 million in 1979, when Detroit automakers dominated the marketplace.
At that time, the UAW represented workers at VW's first U.S. factory, in New Stanton, Pa. The plant shut down in 1988 after 10 years of operation.
King wouldn't comment on whether the workers of the Chattanooga plant are likely to choose UAW representation or when a decision might come. But he lavished praise on VW's labor representation stance, suggesting that the Chattanooga plant may be the most likely to organize.
"Volkswagen is an extremely honorable company which really believes in representation, which has really made sure that it will be the workers' decision," King said.
Volkswagen declined to comment today on King's remarks or the status of the organizing effort, but the company acknowledged it is working on a plan.
"In the U.S.A., the representation of employees by trade unions is highly controversial. Critical experiences from the history of the automobile industry have contributed to this situation," a VW spokesman wrote in an e-mail. "For this reason, Volkswagen is currently working on an innovative model for the representation of employees' interests which will be suitable for the U.S.A."