FRANKFURT -- Volkswagen Group's billionaire owners, the Porsche-Piech clan, underscored their commitment to the automaker, pledging to protect jobs as the company battles with its emissions crisis.
"Jobs are a very valuable asset," Wolfgang Porsche, chairman of family-owned majority shareholder Porsche Automobil Holding SE, told a gathering of 20,000 workers at VW's main plant in Wolfsburg today. "This asset mustn't be squandered."
Porsche spoke to workers alongside three other supervisory board members who represent the reclusive clan: Louise Kiesling, Hans-Michel Piech and Ferdinand Oliver Porsche.
The Porsche-Piech family has been asked by labor leaders to signal their commitment to workers, who face two weeks of forced leave during the Christmas holidays as the crisis begins to affect sales.
The Wolfsburg meeting comes amid mixed news for Volkswagen. Though the company has made progress toward a simpler-than-expected recall of 8.5 million rigged diesel cars in Europe, talks with U.S. regulators are still ongoing as plummeting sales in the country show the impact of the crisis on the showroom floor.
The financial impact is also uncertain.
Standard & Poor's downgraded Volkswagen's credit rating on Tuesday for the second time since the crisis became public in September. "These risks and related costs continue to expand and deepen," especially after the November revelations of misrepresented carbon-dioxide emissions in Europe, the rating company said in a statement.
"The owner families have been very discreet so far amid this unprecedented crisis for the company," said Yasmina Serghini, a Paris-based analyst for Moody's. The meeting will show where the family stands with the labor force, she said, as "an important indicator for the company's plan to accelerate reforms and improve cost efficiency."
Wolfgang Porsche, 72, was thrown into the forefront earlier this year, after his cousin, former Volkswagen Chairman Ferdinand Piech, resigned in a boardroom fight with then-CEO Martin Winterkorn. Porsche was the last of the company's power players to weigh in behind Winterkorn in that struggle, holding off on entering the fray until after consulting with other family members.
Unlike Piech, who spent his career in boardrooms, engineering centers and assembly halls, the soft-spoken Wolfgang Porsche has mostly lived quietly in Austria, spending time in Salzburg and the Alpine town of Zell am See. There he has an organic dairy farm.
Much of the rest of the 30- to 40-person family also keeps a low profile, living around the border of Germany and Austria. They control 52 percent of Volkswagen's voting stock through Porsche Holding, a relic of sports-car maker Porsche's ill-fated attempt to take over much-larger Volkswagen. The bigger company turned the tables in a complex transaction that ended with an agreement in 2009 to have the Porsche-Piech family as anchor shareholder, while the sports-car operations were integrated into Volkswagen's stable of brands.
The family's silence has exacerbated insecurity among workers as evidence grows that the emissions manipulation is starting to hurt sales.
The carmaker is putting production in Wolfsburg on hold for two weeks over Christmas to avoid bloated inventories. The factory is VW's largest and one of the biggest car-manufacturing locations in the world. It produced about 840,000 vehicles last year, but sustaining output could be a struggle if demand continues to slide.
Volkswagen's admission to posting manipulated readings of carbon-dioxide emissions for as many as 800,000 cars in Europe has particularly caused "purchasing restraint" among customers, VW labor chief Bernd Osterloh said Friday.
In one bright spot for the company, technical fixes for cars in Europe have shaped up to be less complex and expensive than initially feared. But talks with U.S. authorities haven't finished, and Volkswagen still faces lawsuits and what are likely to be billions of euros in regulatory fines.
Bloomberg and Reuters contributed to this story