Workers walk by the Volkswagen AG plant in Chattanooga, Tenn. (AP Photo/Erik Schelzig, file)

CHATTANOOGA, Tenn. — For someone who helped torpedo the United Auto Workers’ attempt to organize the Volkswagen plant here earlier this year, Sean Moss sounds an awful lot like someone who might have been on the UAW’s side.

“It’s really to the benefit of everyone that everyone have a say,” says Moss, 46, who has worked in the plant’s assembly shop since the factory started in 2011. Workers need “the opportunity to step up and speak for themselves,” he says.

Earlier this spring, Moss successfully fought the UAW when it seized on a rare opportunity in the anti-union South to organize the workforce at Volkswagen, a German company that views unions as partners, not foes. Moss opposed the move because he felt the UAW had been integrally involved in the bad fortunes of the big Detroit automakers during the recession.

But since then, Moss has helped create a quasi-union of his own at the plant here, saying that he still believes that workers should come together to negotiate with their bosses. The American Council of Employees, as it’s called, was founded a few weeks ago to compete with the UAW for members.

If it thrives within the plant, it could serve as a new model for organized labor in the American workplace. That would be a bitter pill for the U.S. labor movement, which has long operated on the principle that size equals strength and which has been struggling to survive.

One such opportunity seemed to come this year. The 390,000-member United Auto Workers had been working to organize foreign-owned auto plants that settled in right-to-work states during the 1980s and 1990s — undercutting Ford, Chevrolet and General Motors on labor costs.

The four-year-old Volkswagen plant in Tennessee was supposed to be an opening: The company was actually eager to work with the union, since it prefers to negotiate with an organized workforce. But in February, workers narrowly defeated the UAW, forcing Volkswagen to look for another option.

Last week, Volkswagen announced a Plan B — a novel policy outlining a tiered system of recognition for groups within the plant. When a group reaches certain membership thresholds — representing 15 percent, 30 percent and 45 percent of the plant’s 1,500 or so eligible workers — it’s entitled to meet with the plant’s management to discuss salaries, benefits, worker safety and other issues. The meetings are not action-forcing; without a union contract, the company is not required to negotiate with the workers.

Under this policy, the UAW and the the American Council of Employees will both be vying for members. The UAW claims it already has a majority of the plant signed up, but ACE says it’s got a large percentage as well (both declined to give exact numbers).

The main distinction between the two groups is their ambitions: ACE says it has none beyond representation at the Chattanooga plant, while UAW wants to expand to as many auto plants as possible. And that’s key. The power of the labor movement is in its ability to sway state and federal policy, which can make the difference between good jobs and bad ones. More dues-paying members in Tennessee would also put the UAW in a better position to target politicians it doesn’t like.

Unions have long warned that allowing representative bodies without collective bargaining rights could create a system of “fake representation,” without real worker power. Single-location unions are rare in the United States because they have a limited ability to strike.

“If they strike, there isn’t anyone else working who can help them with living and operational expenses,” says Tom Janoski, a professor at the University of Kentucky who has studied the German system. “In other words, if the UAW strikes Ford, they still have members who are working at GM and Chrysler.”

Eventually, VW may recognize one of the groups as an exclusive collective bargaining representative for the plant. That would allow creation of a “a works council,” a German concept of  labor-management collaboration that — with the exception of its plant in China — exists in every other facility VW has around the world.

The council — an elected, representative body — operates in parallel with the union and is broken down into several committees that address everything from health and safety to scheduling and time off. It’s a powerful group with several seats on the company’s supervisory board.

That all sounds attractive to Moss, who spends his days checking to make sure every piece of a finished Passat fits together just right. “There’s always issues that need to be addressed. There’s always things that need to be changed,” he says. “And it’s really to the benefit of everyone that everyone have a say.” If it’s up to him, the UAW just won’t be the one delivering the message.

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The process of creating a works council at the Chattanooga plant has been a strange ride for everyone involved — not least for VW’s Juergen Stumpf.

Stumpf, a former worker in one of VW’s German plants, had risen through the representative system to serve on the company’s global works council. He also held one of the 10 seats on the company’s board reserved for labor. He retired in 2012 — until the next year, when the company’s human resources director asked him to come back to explain Volkswagen’s corporate culture at the company’s first plant in America since it closed one in Pittsburgh in 1988.

VW’s supervisory board had voted to establish the plant in Chattanooga back in 2008, and Stumpf remembers that the company took it as a matter of course that a works council would follow soon after. “We never realized that it would be a problem in the land of democracy,” he said at a labor conference in Tennessee last week.

“We never thought it would be a problem, in the land of democracy,” said Juergen Stumpf, who used to serve on Volkswagen’s supervisory board, on establishing a plant in anti-union Tennessee.

Then, however, VW started to do their legal research, finding a provision in the National Labor Relations Act that would make a union necessary for a works council to be set up. So IG Metall, the giant industrial union that represents VW workers in Germany, began to work with the UAW in reaching out to employees in the Chattanooga plant about organizing a union.

Without the typical opposition from an employer, the UAW moved quickly. It said that a majority of workers within the plant had signed cards favoring the union by summer 2013.

At that point, VW could have just recognized the union — but the forces of American business conservatism had mobilized. Fearful that having the UAW organize one of the many foreign automakers that Tennessee had attracted over the years would destroy the state’s reputation for being relatively union-free, the administration of Gov. Bill Haslam offered VW $300 million in incentives to expand in Chattanooga, as long as the UAW wasn’t part of the picture.

At that point, Stumpf says, VW’s Chattanooga leadership decided to hold an election rather than certify the union voluntarily. “The global works council agreed because we thought we had a majority,” Stumpf says. “We never thought it could be turned around.”

But in the months leading up to the election, Stumpf discovered how wrong they were.

Assisted by organizers from Grover Norquist’s anti-union group Americans for Tax Reform, a faction of workers within the plant started organizing against the UAW, arguing that its record in Detroit shouldn’t recommend it for a role at VW. Internally, they were assisted by managers hired by Don Jackson, the plant’s former overseer, who opposed unionization. Media swirled around both sides of the campaign, and Stumpf was baffled by the backlash.

“I found myself on Web sites saying I am part of the cancer cell that will destroy Tennessee and would destroy the plant in Chattanooga,” he says.

“It was a kind of strange feeling to come here to see the success and being confronted by all this opposition to the works council.” Still, the company and the UAW were confident going into the election in mid-February that they would come out on top.

But then, in the final days before the vote, Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.) said that he had been “assured” that the Chattanooga plant would be awarded a new vehicle model to build only if its workers rejected the UAW. According to the UAW, Corker’s statement scared off enough union supporters to doom the vote.

Mitch Smith, the organizer detailed to the Chattanooga campaign, says that autoworkers know a plant is only really viable when it’s making more than 200,000 vehicles a year, and the Chattanooga plant was at 135,000 — so it needed that new product to be secure. Ultimately, workers voted against joining the UAW, 712 to 626.

“I walked to every family, and I asked what happened,” Smith says. “With the exception of one spouse, they all said: ‘You heard the news. My husband needs a job.'”

Stumpf says his colleagues back in Germany were puzzled about what had happened in Chattanooga, unfamiliar with the fierce politics surrounding unions in the American South. “It was hard to understand,” he says . “I would understand it being in North Korea.

For Sean Moss, who was involved with the anti-UAW campaign, the vote wasn’t surprising at all.

“I think it might’ve been a little problem with [the UAW’s] math,” he says. “The feeling I had going into the election was that they would not get in.”

Moss doesn’t think all unions are bad. They’re still useful for independent operators, he says, who need a collective body for networking purposes, or to get better deals on health insurance.  What really made people nervous, he says, was his research about the UAW itself.

“I think [workers] became educated about their history,” he says. “I saw mismanagement, I saw malfeasance, I saw cronyism, I saw nepotism. Just looking at their membership numbers, the way they’ve declined since 2002. Job security? Well, you can’t give me that. And when I look at our wages compared with the big three, we’re doing better, so you can’t give me a raise.”

The UAW argues that it made a strong recovery after the Detroit automakers hit bottom. But it had to accept a two-tiered system, with significantly lower wages and benefits for new hires than what the legacy employees enjoy.

That might make them less scary to an employer but also less appealing to a potential union member (which is why the UAW is trying to return to the old system). Still, VW and the UAW didn’t give up after the vote. The union was barred from holding an election for another year, but VW didn’t want to wait that long to institute some sort of representation in Chattanooga.

So the UAW decided to form a members-only local, and made an agreement with VW to work toward recognition. They say a pact with Volkswagen’s global works council is a key advantage, and that they already have a majority of workers in the plant signed up. UAW officials declined to comment on ACE specifically, but said they see Volkswagen’s new policy as a step forward, and would take advantage of the right to meetings it affords groups with substantial membership.

“We will remind them of the mutually agreed-upon commitments that were made by Volkswagen and the UAW last spring in Germany,” said Gary Casteel, southern regional director for the union, in a statement. “Among those commitments: Volkswagen will recognize the UAW as the representative of our members.”

The new “engagement policy,” however, leaves a window open for Moss’s group. In many aspects, it would function a lot like a UAW local if it were recognized as the sole collective bargaining representative at the plant, and it would participate in the same works council system (VW has other plants around the world with multiple unions represented).

Moss wouldn’t say precisely what he sees as the big issues, though the UAW says one item it would like to see addressed is the VW plant’s draining shift rotation. Moss says that these days, since both campaigns have been active for so long, it’s a little clearer who’s on whose side within the plant. The UAW started distributing water bottles with its logo emblazoned in orange, which marks some peoples’ allegiances. Still, they manage to work together.

Moss tells a story of being detailed for a day to work alongside a strong UAW supporter who had been in his class of recruits back in 2011.

“We get along fine. We’re working together, everything’s groovy,” Moss says. “One worker walked by, he looked in the car at us, and he kind of giggled. And I asked the guy I was working with, what was he giggling at?”

His colleague answered. “’He thinks it’s funny that the biggest pro-UAW guy and the biggest anti-UAW guy are in a car together, and nobody’s punching each other.’”