The purpose of this blog is to provide analytical commentary on formal and informal labour organisations and their attempts to resist ever more brutal forms of exploitation in today’s neo-liberal, global capitalism.

Wednesday 6 December 2023

Contesting Musk: Swedish Tesla strike becomes a global conflict

What began as a local strike by 130 mechanics for a collective labour agreement (CLA) in the Swedish Tesla service workshops is escalating into a global conflict, argues Roland Erne in this guest post. According to the Swedish arbitrator for labour disputes, Tesla boss Elon Musk forbade his local managers to make any concessions to the trade unions, even though CLAs have been a central component in Swedish labour relations for decades. Clearly, Elon Musk feels infinitely powerful and thinks he can bring even Europe's strongest labour unions to their knees. 

Last week, Tesla was worth just under 250 billion US dollars. In comparison, the whole Swedish government estimated revenues of only 122 billion US dollars for the whole of 2023. It is thus hardly surprising that, Elon Musk has so far been successful with his anti-social strategy. There is not a single factory in the world where management and trade unions have agreed a CLA. The working conditions are correspondingly poor, not only in terms of wages, but also in terms of health and safety in the workplace. Not only are there more serious accidents at work in the Tesla factories than in comparable companies. According to research by Norwegian public television channel NRK, Tesla management also uses a brutal "internal evaluation system" to get rid of Tesla workers who have had accidents or are on sick leave – despite the legal protection against dismissal. No wonder that more and more Tesla workers are organising themselves into trade unions; namely in Norway and Germany and mostly in secret; as it happened in the case of Ryanair pilots a few years ago, as Tesla is, like Ryanair, known for deliberately dismissing union members.


The striking Swedish Tesla workers are under enormous pressure. That is why their metalworkers' union IF Metall increased their strike pay to 130 per cent of their Tesla wages. In addition, several trade unions from Sweden and Norway are supporting their Tesla colleagues with solidarity strikes. Swedish and Norwegian dock workers are refusing to deliver Tesla cars. And Swedish postal workers have gone on strike against Tesla by no longer delivering car licence plates for Tesla vehicles.


"This is madness!" said the Tesla boss when he heard about this wave of solidarity in the far north. According to the Financial Times, Musk fears that something similar could happen at the recently opened Tesla plant in Brandenburg, Germany. He has therefore decided to go on the offensive. On 27 November, he sued the Swedish state. He claims that the solidarity strikes by the postal service are "discriminatory" and restrict his "economic freedom". He is also supported by leading Scandinavian capitalists, for whom the Nordic social “social model" has long been a thorn in the side. Maria Landeborn, senior economist at Danske Bank, even accuses the trade unions of using "mafia methods against Tesla", although solidarity strikes are legal in Sweden and Norway. Although a Swedish court has now allowed Tesla to collect the licence plates for its new cars directly from the road traffic office, another court confirmed the legality of the postal workers’ solidarity strike.


It will be crucial for the trade unions to put pressure on Tesla in other countries as well. The prospects for this are not bad. Ironically, the successful cross-border strike action of Ryanair pilots in November 2017 showed that autocratic and apparently all powerful bosses like Ryanair CEO Michael O'Leary have done more to internationalise unions than managers in classical social partnership workplaces, as we have shown in a recent piece in the European Journal of Industrial Relations.



Roland Erne is Professor of European Integration & Employment Relations at the UCD School of Business and Principal Investigator of the European Research Council (ERC) Project ‘Labour Politics & the EU's New Economic Governance Regime (European Unions)‘ at the UCD Geary Institute for Public Policy.


This text originally appeared in Roland Erne’s bi-monthly column on European labour politics in the Swiss trade union newspaper Work:    


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