The world’s richest man is not amused. Elon Musk, CEO and biggest shareholder of automaker Tesla, is annoyed at a series of strikes against his company. He calls them “insane.”
He has simply encountered a culture which takes workplace democracy seriously. When Tesla set up in Sweden, Musk attempted to follow the same anti-union practices he has applied elsewhere. Swedish workers have other ideas. They like their union model and they intend to preserve it against the whims of global capitalists.
The powerful trade union IF Metall is leading a strike across eight Tesla workplaces, the first time workers for Tesla have gone on strike. The union, with a force of 300,000 members, took action when the company refused to sign a collective agreement. It has promised to “keep going for as long as needed.”
IF Metall is not alone. A host of other Swedish unions are engaging in sympathy action. Transport and harbour workers have refused to load or unload Tesla cars; electricians have refused to carry out service or repair at Tesla’s workshops; and painters have refused to work on the company’s cars. Service and communication workers have stopped distributing post and shipments to Tesla. Swedish postal services are preventing licence plates from reaching new Tesla cars.
And the fight is going international. Jørn Eggum, leader of Norway’s United Federation of Trade Unions, where 500 Tesla employees are organized, has said “Norway should not be a transit country for Tesla to get away with strike-breaking. We must hold Tesla accountable and make them commit to collective agreements in the European countries in which they operate.”
German unions, which have been pressuring the company to implement a collective bargaining agreement for its workers at a large plant in Berlin, may be emboldened by the Swedes.
With about ninety percent of Swedish employees unionized, collective agreements are the cornerstone of Sweden’s labour market model.
It is a model that contrasts sharply with labour markets elsewhere. In the U.S., Tesla’s home country, at least three attempts to organize have failed, largely as a result of the company’s aggressive anti-union tactics. This year the carmaker fired over 30 supporters of a nascent union at its facility in Buffalo, New York, shortly after the organizing effort was announced.
Unions in the U.S. are also hampered by weak protections for labour. The National Labor Relations Board has repeatedly chastised Tesla and Musk for illegal or improper anti-union activities to little avail. Perhaps the country needs freedom of association enshrined in its constitution, as it is in our Charter.
The U.S. is a very free country but with a democracy deeply in need of reform (as to a lesser extent is ours). A comparison of the unrepresentative results of their elections compared to Scandinavian elections illustrates the problem. The greater commitment to democracy in Scandinavia carries over into their workplaces.
The ease with which Musk has foiled organizing in his company’s home country has left him unprepared for the solidarity of workers in Sweden. But it isn’t “insane” as he insists, it’s simply workers demanding in unison a rightful say in their workplaces. No democracy is complete without it.