• Thu. Jul 25th, 2024

Tesla strike in Sweden tests Elon Musk’s anti-union stance


Dec 29, 2023


MALMÖ, Sweden — Every day, port workers here in Sweden’s third-largest city unload shipping containers, oil, chemicals and building materials destined for places across the country. But there’s one thing they won’t touch: Tesla cars.

For six weeks, dockworkers at Swedish ports have refused to load or unload the electric cars made by billionaire Elon Musk. They’re part of a growing movement of workers across Sweden, Finland, Norway and Denmark who are protesting in support of striking Swedish Tesla technicians and their demand for a collective agreement on the terms of their employment.

“We’re going to take the fight all the way,” Curt Hansson, a 55-year-old dockworker here said in an interview during a break from unloading ships on a cold, gray December day. “Either he leaves or signs an agreement.”

Since October, when a subset of Tesla’s 130 technicians in Sweden first went on strike, tens of thousands of workers in Northern Europe have joined the largest coordinated labor action against Tesla since its founding in 2003. Norwegian and Finnish ports have likewise closed to Tesla shipments. Danish truck drivers won’t transport Teslas through their country. Postal workers have refused to deliver license plates to new Tesla drivers in Sweden, cleaners won’t work in the company’s Swedish offices and electricians won’t service its charging points here. On Friday, Swedish waste collectors added their support, refusing to pick up from Tesla’s repair shops across the country.

The solidarity blockades have the potential to disrupt Tesla sales in Northern Europe — a relatively small market compared with the United States and China, but a wealthy and environmentally conscious one, with some of the most electric vehicles per capita in the world. Even more, though, the labor actions are being watched as a test case for global efforts to crack Musk’s strict no-unions policy.

“Elon Musk isn’t making an agreement in Sweden because he’s afraid … it will create follow-ups in other countries, even the U.S.,” said Jan Villadsen, chairman of a Danish union that represents 50,000 transport workers, including truck drivers and dock workers blockading Teslas.

At Tesla’s super factory near Berlin, the company’s second production hub outside the United States, a growing number of the roughly 11,000 workers want to organize, German union officials say. And the United Auto Workers, fresh off its victory in strikes against Ford, General Motors and Chrysler-owner Stellantis, has said Tesla would be one of its next organizing targets.

UAW announces drive to organize Toyota, Tesla and a dozen other automakers

“If Tesla gives in to the unions around this ongoing dispute, it could create a growing brush fire in Europe that eventually gets to the UAW and U.S. in 2024,” said Dan Ives, a New York-based analyst with Wedbush Securities. “It’s an important lightning rod issue around unions globally.”

Neither Tesla nor Musk responded to requests for comment. But Musk has weighed in publicly on the labor actions in Sweden. On his social media platform X, formerly Twitter, he replied to a post about mail carriers refusing to deliver license plates to his customers by writing, “This is insane.”

He has also been clear about his attitude toward unions.

“I don’t like anything which creates a lords-and-peasants kind of thing, and I think the unions naturally try to create negativity in a company,” he said at a conference in November. “If Tesla gets unionized, it will be because we deserve it, and it failed in some way.”

“Lords and peasants” is exactly the kind of relationship Tesla insists on having with its workers in Sweden, said Jānis Kuzma, 37, one of the striking technicians.

Kuzma said he joined Tesla in 2021 because he wanted to work on electric vehicles. He and his wife own a Tesla Model Y themselves. But as the company sold more cars in Sweden, the burden on its technicians increased, he said. He and the others at the Malmö service center had to take on a lot more work. The next-closest Tesla workshop was 170 miles away, so not a realistic alternative for most drivers.

After Tesla refused to give him a raise, Kuzma said, he decided to join the push for a collective agreement. The management didn’t seem to care that such agreements between companies and their employees are a central part of the Swedish labor market model, relied on in the absence of regulations such as a statutory minimum wage and credited with making strikes and other labor disruptions so rare. Kuzma said he was told, “Maybe Tesla is not for everybody.”

Several weeks into the strike, he said his manager called and accused him of leaking company secrets. The issue: Kuzma’s wife had criticized Tesla on X. “The craziest part is they were monitoring, they were checking my wife’s profile,” he said.

Kuzma pushed back with the help of a union lawyer, who argued that Tesla’s employee confidentiality provision, originally written for its U.S. workforce, could not trump Swedish free speech protections, which allow workers — and their partners — to talk about work conditions.

Today, about 65 percent of Swedish workers are part of unions, one of the highest rates in the world, and nearly 90 percent are covered by a collective agreement, according to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development.

“If you come to Sweden, you have to abide by these rules,” said Anders Linde, a Swedish postal worker and union activist in Malmö, who is participating in the effort to block Tesla’s mail. “We have fought for these rules for generations, so we’re not going to give them up easily.”

Foreign companies have tried to deviate from the prevailing model in the past. In 1995, Swedish Toys R Us employees went on strike for three months before the U.S. company relented to signing a collective agreement.

Hansson, the dock worker in Malmö, remembers that strike well — it was the last time he participated in a blockade, until now.

It is not yet clear how the strike and sympathy actions will affect Tesla sales. The company’s Model Y crossover SUV was the best-selling car in Europe this year. In Sweden, it beat out Swedish-founded Volvo’s competing XC40, according to Mobility Sweden, an association of automakers and importers.

But Tesla no doubt is facing a public relations problem. The strike has been one of the biggest news stories in Sweden over several months, and opinion polls show the public is broadly supportive.

For those looking to buy a new electric car, the fear of not being able to have their Tesla serviced could be enough to push them toward an alternative, said Tibor Blömhall, 55, president of Tesla Club Sweden, which represents 17,000 Tesla owners and electric car enthusiasts.

“I’m very concerned about the image of Tesla in Sweden,” Blömhall said. “Somehow owning a Tesla car has become a statement.”

Tesla owners love their cars. Elon Musk? Not as much.

Just like in the United States, Musk’s support of right-wing influencers on X, his posts questioning transgender rights and his strict anti-union stance, has cast a political shadow on his car company and divided Tesla owners.

“I’ve seen bumper stickers now: ‘I bought my Tesla before Elon became an idiot,’” Linde, the postal worker, said over a cup of coffee overlooking Malmö’s 16th-century town square.

Union leaders with IF Metall, which is representing the striking Tesla technicians, said they first tried to sign a collective agreement with Tesla in 2017. The company rebuffed them. Since then, both the union’s membership among Tesla workers and the company’s presence in Sweden have grown.

“That’s why we decided right now to try again to negotiate,” said Marie Nilsson, president of IF Metall. The union had some talks with Tesla, but the company isn’t interested in making an agreement, Nilsson said. So the technicians went on strike with IF Metall’s backing, and other unions ordered sympathy actions, which are protected by Swedish law.

Neither Tesla nor the union would confirm how many of the roughly 130 Tesla technicians in Sweden are striking. Blömhall said an informal survey by Tesla Club Sweden members suggested the number could be as low as 13 or 14. Tesla owners are still able to get their cars fixed in the country, he said.

Still, the solidarity blockades and selective strikes could have a more serious impact. Body shops and car painters not associated with Tesla are refusing to work on the vehicles out of solidarity, creating frustrations for Tesla owners who feel they’re being targeted, Blömhall said.

IF Metall wants the disruption to go further. In November, workers at a Swedish aluminum auto parts maker that supplies Tesla’s factory in Germany said they would stop making parts for the company, potentially disrupting production.

PensionDanmark, a major pension fund in Denmark, sold its $70 million stake in Tesla in early December out of solidarity with the workers.

Musk, for his part, still isn’t showing any willingness to negotiate.

“IF Metall is extremely stubborn, and Mr. Elon Musk is known to be extremely stubborn, too,” Blömhall said. “They have dug trenches, and nobody is giving up.”


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