November 29, 2023

Unionized Tesla mechanics in Sweden have been on strike for more than a week, and now, out of solidarity, dockworkers in the country are readying to stop deliveries. If the Swedish union gets its way, the electric vehicle giant could face growing labor unrest elsewhere.

After failing to get the electric vehicle giant to sign off on a collective agreement that includes a broader insurance package, guaranteed job transition training in the event of job cuts, and annual wage increases, union IF Metall resorted to work stoppage at the end of last month.

Tomorrow (Nov. 7), dockworkers at Sweden’s four largest ports—Malmö, Gothenburg, Trelleborg, and Södertälje—are gearing up to stop unloading shipments of Teslas in support of the strikers, said Swedish Transport Workers’ Union chair Tommy Wreeth, according to Wired.

A meeting has been set up between Tesla and the union for today (Nov. 6), the New York Times reported.

In isolation, the Swedish movement has little impact on Tesla’s operations. The company doesn’t manufacture cars in the country, where it employs just a few hundred people at its 10 workshops across seven cities. Not all of the workers walked off the job, the New York Times reported, citing union officials.

But a deal with the union could prompt action elsewhere, including bans on new hires or overtime work and more solidarity strikes by other unions, according to German Bender, a labor market analyst at Stockholm-based think tank Arena Idé. Back in 1995, when toy seller Toys “R” Us turned down a collective labor agreement with US employees, it wasn’t just the 80 white-collar workers who went on strike—postal and transport workers stopped deliveries, municipal workers halted trash collection, banking services were paused, and more. Three months later, Toys “R” Us signed on the dotted line.

Also, desire for labor action could spread to other markets. “A concession to the union in Sweden could bolster union demands in countries where a larger portion of Tesla’s over 120,000 employees work,” Bender notes.

A month ago, German Tesla workers at the Grünheide factory already started to organize over safety and health issues. A few days ago, Tesla raised salaries for workers at its Giga Berlin factory, where 11,000-plus employees work. IF Metall claimed the pay raise as a success birthed from its job action, but Tesla says, “Claims that there is a connection between Tesla’s salary adjustments and union activity are without any truth.”

A brief timeline of Tesla’s labor unrest in Sweden

Oct. 24: IF Metall issues a strike warning after Tesla stands by its decision not to sign a collective agreement.

Oct. 27: The strike begins with around 130 mechanics walking off the job.

Nov. 3: Across Sweden, 470 more workers join in. At non-Tesla-specific workshops, people come to work and service cars of all other brands and models but Tesla.

Oct. 29: “Shame on you, Tesla, shame on you!” Stefan Löfven, former Swedish Social Democrat prime minister and former IF Metall leader, posts on Facebook. Löfven encourages people to postpone a purchase of a Tesla “until an agreement is signed.”

Nov. 6: Tesla will meet with IF Metall union workers to discuss the collective agreement.

Nov. 7: Dockworkers plan to stop the delivery of Tesla vehicles to build pressure on the company to accept the metal workers’ asks.

Quotable: Elon Musk is anti-union

“Elon Musk’s business model is to avoid respecting human rights. Now he is taken on by one of our strongest unions. We must defeat the Tesla business model, and Sweden is the best place to start.”

Atle Høie, general secretary of IndustriALL, a union representing 50 million working people in more than 140 countries across the mining, energy, and manufacturing supply chains

Sweden’s EV market, by the digits

63.4%: Share of the Swedish car market claimed by electric vehicles this September. Tesla’s Model Y is a clear leader in the market.

90%: Share of Swedish employees covered by collective bargaining agreements like the one being presented to Tesla. These deals define the relationship between employers and their employees, including terms of pay, pensions, working conditions, and other benefits. But in recent years, they’ve faced resistance for being too inflexible, including from homegrown companies like buy-now-pay-later firm Klarna and streaming giant Spotify.

57,000: Workers represented by the Swedish Transport Workers’ Union who are planning to rally behind the metal workers at Tesla’s Swedish outposts as “sympathy measures.”

127,000: Tesla workers worldwide, whose calls to unionize have constantly been met with opposition from CEO Elon Musk.

Place of interest: the US

“Nothing stopping Tesla team at our car plant from voting union. Could do so tmrw if they wanted. But why pay union dues & give up stock options for nothing? Our safety record is 2X better than when plant was UAW (United Auto Workers) & everybody already gets healthcare.

—Elon Musk’s post on Twitter (now X) in May 2018, which was viewed as anti-union. The US National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) even asked him to delete it

So far, Tesla workers in the US have failed to unionize. However, after the United Auto Workers (UAW) successfully negotiated deals with the big three Detroit automakers—Ford, General Motors, and Stellantis—Tesla is likely among the next names on the list. UAW leader Shawn Fain has said Tesla, Toyota, and Honda workers are not “enemies” but in fact “UAW members of the future.”

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