The workers of the only Volkswagen plant in the United States do not want employee representation patterned after a German model. With that, the conflict-oriented labor union in the U.S. has served its time – even if anger about extreme inequality in society is growing.

The U.S. will remain without a VW employee organization. Last week, 1,500 workers in the VW plant in Chattanooga, Tenn. rejected representation by the United Auto Workers Union in a secret vote. Without this representation, however, the establishment of an employee organization is impossible, according to American law.

The decision means relatively little for Volkswagen as a company, but means all the more for labor relations in American industry. It is a setback for the chairman of the company's employee organization in Wolfsburg, Bernd Osterloh, who had promoted the project "Employee Organization in Chattanooga" and now stands there without a partner in the United States.

Above all however, it is a crushing defeat for the UAW, one of the last relevant traditional industrial labor unions in the United States, whose president Bob King knew what was at stake in Chattanooga: If the union wants to remain relevant at a national level, it must be in a position to not only organize General Motors, Ford and Chrysler, but also the up to now union-free production sites of foreign suppliers like VW, BMW, Daimler or Toyota in the Southern states.

And if it is not able to succeed at VW, where could it? To be sure, Republican politicians and conservative groups put a lot of money into a propaganda attack on the UAW. In spite of that, the conditions for the union were relatively favorable. In contrast to other firms, VW management did not fight the union; instead, its position was officially neutral, and unofficially, even in favor of it.

In spite of this, the workers decided they did not want the union because they feared conflict within the firm and the loss of jobs; in addition, most felt they were being treated and paid decently.

Unions Play No Role in Silicon Valley

The case of Chattanooga demonstrates with brutal clarity that the model of the conflict-oriented labor union in the U.S. has served its time – even if anger about extreme inequality in society is growing. Still relevant are the unions of firefighters, police, teachers and other employees of public service, whose jobs are relatively secure. In future-oriented places, like Silicon Valley, they play no role; they have to withdraw from the old industries.

That does not mean that the German model of an employee organization would not interest America. On the contrary, during the big fight in Chattanooga, conservatives and liberals demonstrated much sympathy for a cooperative working relationship in firms. The UAW even explicitly represented itself as a reformed and refined organization that had sworn off the conflict model of the past. The commitment came too late to be credible.

If IG-Metall and the labor councils in Wolfsburg are serious about their model, then they should spend less energy courting German participation in the future and all the more energy developing models with American experts for how company representation could become possible under current legal conditions.

The requirement that an employee council is only allowed if the company has previously been unionized actually serves to protect the workers. With it, the formation of employer-oriented, dummy unions is hindered. The goal can certainly also be achieved without having to forego cooperative working relationships. Possibly, the vote in Chattanooga will pave the way for real reform in America.