Sweden’s Tesla strikes pit Elon Musk against European labour ideals

A blizzard blowing straight at the Tesla picket line did little to dull the spirit of strikers protesting this week against Elon Musk’s carmaker, in what is shaping up as a transatlantic clash of ideals. 

“If you look at what Elon Musk has done in the US, he’s anti-unions,” said Arturo Vasquez, an ombudsman for the IF Metall union standing among strikers outside Tesla’s service centre in the Stockholm suburb of Segelstorp. “For us, it’s symbolic. For Swedish unions, it’s an incredibly important fight.”

The dispute started in late October when about 130 Tesla mechanics in Sweden went on strike to protest against Tesla’s refusal to sign a collective bargaining agreement. Soon, sectors from cleaners and dockworkers to postal workers and metal-bashers had started sympathy action, stopping the company from unloading cars from boats or even receiving vehicle registration plates. 

Now it risks spreading even further. Vasquez said IF Metall, Sweden’s largest union, had talked to counterparts across Europe and in the US to solicit support and maybe even their own moves. 

Inside the warmth of the service centre there was plenty of activity, with almost a dozen customers waiting for their cars. Vasquez said only about half the site’s staff were on strike. Tesla says more than 90 per cent of its employees in Sweden have chosen to stay at their posts.

Union membership in the country has been falling but levels remain among the highest in Europe and Sweden’s powerful labour groups still wield enormous collective strength, aided by the right to “sympathy strikes”.

The action against Tesla is critical for unions in a country where there is no minimum wage and pay is set almost exclusively through the collective agreements that Tesla has shunned. 

“The question is much bigger for the union movement because if they cave for Tesla then we will have to cave for the next one as well, then the next one, then in the long run there will be no collective bargaining system,” said Jesper Hamark, a labour market specialist at the University of Gothenburg.

Musk has repeatedly criticised labour movements, and last week derided the mounting Swedish strikes against Tesla as “insane”. Yet the company is facing growing workforce clamour in several of its most important markets, especially the US and Germany. 

In the US, Tesla’s home market and its largest, the UAW union has said it wants to recruit Tesla’s workers before 2028, as the union seeks to expand its membership beyond the Detroit carmakers of Ford, General Motors and Chrysler-owner Stellantis. 

“I would think that in the United States, given the legal environment here, you are going to see Tesla stand as aggressively as it possibly can,” said Marick Masters, a labour relations professor at Michigan’s Wayne State University. Musk’s anti-union position is the default among US chief executives, he added.

In Germany, Tesla’s largest European market and home of its Grünheide factory near Berlin where roughly 10,000 employees make EVs and batteries, workers are closely watching the fight unfolding in Sweden.

The Grünheide plant’s works council, a group of elected staff representatives who negotiate with management, is not associated with Germany’s largest and most powerful union IG Metall — something the union’s newly elected boss Christianne Benner has vowed to change.

Elon Musk
Elon Musk repeatedly criticises labour movements, and last week derided the mounting Swedish strikes against Tesla as ‘insane’ © Nathan Laine/Bloomberg

“We don’t allow union-free zones. Not even on Mars, Elon Musk,” she warned the billionaire in her maiden speech in October.

IG Metall has claimed that members employed at Tesla’s German plant have complained about poor working conditions, “extreme workload [and] excessive production targets”. The union estimates that wages at the plant are about a fifth lower than they would be under a collective bargaining agreement. 

The strikes in Sweden were giving workers in Grünheide “courage and confidence to organise themselves into a union and take their fate into their own hands”, said IG Metall’s regional head Dirk Shulze. But strict German rules prevent any solidarity strikes, despite requests from their Swedish counterparts.

Nevertheless, Shulze said membership at the Grünheide plant had been growing “faster than expected” in recent weeks, although the union would not disclose what proportion of the workforce had joined.

The figure will prove important in the next couple of months, as IG Metall seeks victories for its members in upcoming works council elections at the Grünheide plant in the first half of 2024. Signing up more employees will also be key if the union is to have the right to negotiate with Tesla over wages.

Bar chart of Market share, Jan to Oct 2023 (%) showing Tesla car sales in the UK and western Europe

But the Swedish case shows that influential unions are able to disrupt Tesla’s operations, even if its own workers are not unionised or — in the case of Sweden — it does not even manufacture vehicles.

Unions in Norway, one of Tesla’s biggest European markets, are discussing how to organise workers there as well as whether to take sympathy action over the Swedish strike. Officials said Tesla’s hardline stance had led some of the carmaker’s workers to sign up to unions in secret, an unusual step in Norway.

The sympathy actions inside Sweden — in which dock workers have refused to unload Tesla cars, cleaners have not tidied the company’s offices and one supplier has stopped making parts — is set to spread, according to several union officials. “There is more to come, lots more if needed,” said Vasquez. 

Sympathy strikes helped Sweden notch up one of its most famous union victories. When Toys R Us arrived in the country in the mid 1990s, it also initially eschewed collective bargaining.

A three-month strike against the US business led to a collective agreement that was “the first anywhere in the world” for the company, according to Anders Kjellberg, a sociology professor who specialises in the labour movement at Sweden’s Lund University.

While Tesla is the best-selling EV brand in the Nordic country, the market is only the fifth-largest in Europe, behind Germany, the UK, France and Norway. 

However, “contagion and solidarity from other countries could be toxic if the dispute spreads to other markets such as Germany both for production and sales”, said auto analyst Matthias Schmidt, who specialises in the region’s electric vehicle market.

Almost two-thirds of Tesla’s sales in Europe come from its factory near Berlin, he added.

In its fightback against the action, Tesla has won one small victory and suffered a defeat. A court allowed Tesla to collect vehicle registration plates from the Swedish Transport Agency while a legal case is heard against the agency, but a separate local court in Sweden ruled that the carmaker could not gain immediate access to any plates held by PostNord, the national post company.

Union banners outside Tesla’s Swedish plant
A member of the IF Metall union striking against Tesla says: ‘There is no limit for how long we can strike’ © Anna Tärnhuvud/FT

Monday’s interim court victory for Musk went down poorly among the strikers. 

“It’s typical Elon Musk. He sues to get his will. He has threatened workers here,” said Vasquez. “Musk thinks he can do in Sweden what he does in the US. But we have collective agreements with all the big companies in Sweden. He has to realise he needs to let the Swedish organisation sign — that is the way out of this.” 

Tesla said it “remained committed” to its Swedish customers. It added: “Our employees are encouraged to innovate and collaborate with other teams to enhance Tesla’s owners’ satisfaction and help accelerate the advent of sustainable energy. In return, they are rewarded with fair terms and working conditions. This is why Tesla, like many other companies, has chosen not to enter into a collective agreement.”

But the carmaker will need to deal with the icy resolve of the Swedish unions, which shows no sign of thawing.

Dragan, an IF Metall union member also standing outside the Tesla service centre, is set for the long haul. “There is no limit for how long we can strike,” he said. 

“The union pays everything, 130 per cent of wages to cover pensions. Nobody should lose a cent because of the strike. We have funds to last years.” 

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