Elon Musk has one word for unions — “No!” He told the New York Times last week, “I disagree with the idea of unions. I just don’t like anything which creates kind of a lords and peasants sort of thing. I think the unions naturally try to create negativity in a company.”
Tesla sells a lot of its electric cars in Sweden, Denmark, and Norway — countries where labor unions are especially strong. According to CNN Business, 90% of workers in Sweden are unionized, as are about 80 percent of Norway’s labor force. Unions are considered an essential part of the social contract in those countries, where good pay and benefits are considered fundamental rights. So perhaps it is inevitable that Tesla and Scandinavian unions have clashed.
Good Wages, Good Pensions, And Good Insurance
One of the largest unions in the automotive sector in Sweden is IF Metall, which represents many of the metal workers who build cars and trucks in that country. About a month ago, union members in Sweden went on strike after the Tesla subsidiary they worked for refused to recognize the union.
On its website IF Metall says, “This is about good wages, good pensions, and good insurance for all our members who work at Tesla. We have been negotiating with Tesla for a long time. They have refused to sign a collective agreement and violate basic principles in the Swedish labor market.” The strike has since spread to include Swedish dockworkers who started blocking deliveries of Tesla vehicles at the country’s ports, electricians who stopped maintenance work for the carmaker, and other workers in Sweden, according to Expressen, a CNN affiliate in Sweden.
CNN reports that 3F, a Danish labor union that represents dockworkers and drivers, has agreed to support their Swedish colleagues in order to foreclose any possibility that Tesla might try an end run around the IF Metall strike by delivering cars to Denmark and then trucking them to Sweden.
Such a workaround “is no longer possible,” said Jan Villadsen, the head of 3F Transport. “IF Metall and the Swedish workers are fighting an incredibly important battle right now. When they ask for our support, we are of course behind them. Just like companies, the trade union movement is global in the fight to protect workers,” he said.
“With the sympathy strike, we are now stepping in to put further pressure on Tesla. Of course, we hope that they come to the negotiating table as soon as possible and sign a collective agreement. Even if you are one of the richest people in the world, you can’t just make your own rules. We have some labor market agreements in the Nordic region and you have to comply with them if you want to run a business here.”
CNN says it has contacted Tesla for comment. Good luck with that. Musk’s communication tool of choice these days is an emoji of a steaming pile of feces. Being the wealthiest person in history allows you to get away with such juvenile antics, proving once again that the line between genius and insanity is often determined by the number of zeros in one’s bank balance.
Now the strike against Tesla may be spreading further still. Unions representing dockworkers in Finland and Norway are also discussing taking action in solidarity with the striking Swedish mechanics, Anu Hietala, general secretary of the Nordic Transport Workers’ Federation in Stockholm told CNN on Tuesday.
Tesla Challenges A National Norm
Tesla employs only about 120 workers in Sweden, people who service vehicles for Swedish drivers at several different sites. Yet this small group of employees is at the center of a dispute that Swedish trade unions believe threatens the very existence of the country’s long established model of harmonious labor relations. Collective bargaining agreements between employers’ associations and unions cover entire sectors and are key to the way Sweden’s labor market has been governed for almost a century.
The result is a remarkably peaceful industrial landscape, even by Nordic standards: Sweden lost an average of 8,100 working days a year to industrial action between 2010 and 2021, for example, against more than 120,000 in Norway and Finland. But Tesla flat out refuses to play ball the Swedish way. After extended but fruitless negotiations, members at IF Metall opted to use the only weapon at their disposal — calling a strike.
“We have tried to negotiate with Tesla for the better part of five years, and we have tried to explain to them the benefits with the collective agreement. But if they still refuse, then we have the option to take action and finally we ran out of patience,” Jesper Pettersson, a spokesperson for IF Metall, told The Guardian.
German Bender, the head of investigations at the Arena Idé think tank and an expert on the Swedish labor market, said he could understand the union’s concerns. “It’s a very small conflict — maybe 120 or 130 employees. But it’s a huge employer, with potentially norm-setting consequences.
“I am not saying that if the unions lose, the next day the Swedish model ceases to exist. But it is important in principle, because if the unions were to allow Tesla to get away with this, other employers would start asking themselves why do I have to sign a collective agreement? It’s hard to say how fast that would happen, but we’ve seen that in Germany, collective bargaining coverage has come down substantially in the past 10, 15 years. So it is a plausible outcome of this event.”
Pettersson, of IF Metall in Sweden said, “Tesla is a major player in the green transition, and for us, I think it’s obvious that they should compete on the same terms as all other companies in Sweden, and respect the basic principles of the Swedish labour market.”
Sweden’s national mediator, Medlingsinstitutet has attempted to act as a go-between but its senior labor adviser Per Ewaldsson acknowledges that it is a difficult one to resolve. “In this case, the dispute is more about principles than matters of substance — because the trade union demands a collective agreement with this company and the company refuses such an agreement. So in terms of mediation, it’s rather complicated to find a compromise,” he said.
A month into its strike, IF Metall is firmly dug in for the long haul. Striking workers are being fully compensated for lost pay. With a strike fund worth an estimated £1bn, the union says it can cover the cost of industrial action for decades if need be. “We have always anticipated that it might take a long time,” Pettersson said.
Tesla is obviously seeing this work stoppage in Sweden in the larger global context. IG Metall, one of the largest unions in Germany, has been trying to organize the 11,000 workers at the Tesla factory outside Berlin with little success. And in the US, the UAW is fresh off a major victory against Ford, GM, and Stellantis and setting its sights on other non-unionized auto workers, especially those at Tesla. That may explain why Tesla is being so intransigent about a handful of workers in Sweden.
In the final analysis, there are sweeping changes coming to the auto industry as the EV revolution moves forward. Workers are looking for assurances that there will still be good jobs for them in the future. This is one dispute that deserves to be watched closely as the result will reverberate throughout the industry.
Have a tip for CleanTechnica? Want to advertise? Want to suggest a guest for our CleanTech Talk podcast? Contact us here.
Latest CleanTechnica TV Video
CleanTechnica uses affiliate links. See our policy here.