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The Tesla strike – a fight for the Swedish model

The Tesla strike – a fight for the Swedish model

| Text: Gunhild Wallin, Photo: Johan Nilsson/TT

A drama is taking place in the Swedish labour market. The trade union IF Metall is taking industrial action to get EV maker Tesla to sign a collective agreement. Elon Musk, one of the world’s richest people and Tesla’s main shareholder, refuses. After many sympathy actions from other trade unions, he is taking the Swedish state to court.

After a long fight to get Tesla to sign a collective agreement with IF Metall, the trade union chose to take industrial action on 27 October. Their argument was “to make sure our members have fair and secure working conditions”, according to IF Metall’s website.

130 Tesla workers went on strike at Tesla’s service centres in Sweden. Since then, the strike has been expanded to include some 500 car mechanics across 17 Swedish workshops. 

On top of this, there is an increasing number of sympathy actions. Right now, Tesla’s facilities are not being cleaned or maintained. Parts are not being sent to workshops and cars are not being unloaded in ports. The electricians’ union has also expressed its support by no longer servicing Tesla charge points and workshops. 

Marie Nilsson and Veli-Pekka Säikkälä

IF Metall's leader Marie Nilsson and contract secretary Veli-Pekka Säikkälä. Photo: Daniel Roos

Ever since the LO union Seko and the Union of Civil Servants ST, a member of the Swedish Confederation of Professional Employees, started blocking deliveries addressed to Tesla, a lot of car number plates have been stuck in the post. That made Tesla's Swedish subsidiary TM Sweden take the Swedish state to court through the Swedish Transport Authority and PostNord.

Elon Musk and Tesla have been remarkably quiet during the ongoing conflict apart from one message on X, previously known as Twitter and now owned by Musk, where he called the development “insane!”.

Sustainable conditions in sustainable companies

There are not that many Tesla workshop employees, but IF Metall says the scale of the industrial action reflects that this is a fight for the Swedish labour market model.

“It is a very important conflict. Digital and green transition companies are becoming more and more essential for the future labour market and if they don’t sign collective agreements, the number of workers covered will fall and workers’ rights will be eroded,” says Professor Anders Kjellberg at Lund University, whose report ”Kollektivavtalens täckningsgrad och vita fläckar” (Collective agreements’ coverage and white spots) was just published (Arena idé).

Kjellberg provides the background to the collective agreement’s importance in the Swedish labour market. A collective agreement is negotiated and entered into by the social partners. It covers wages, restructuring arrangements, pensions and other terms and rights related to the relationship between employees and employers.

The Swedish labour market model is mainly managed by the social partners with little input from the state, even compared to the other Nordic countries where the state is more involved in decisions.

Trade union membership numbers in Sweden are high, both among employers and employees. 87 per cent of employees work for employers who are members of employers’ organisations, and Swedish workers – along with their Icelandic colleagues – are the most organised in the world. Seven out of ten workers are trade union members, but union membership has fallen, mainly among blue-collar workers. 

Around 90 per cent of the Swedish labour market is covered by collective agreements. The figure is slightly lower in the private sector, at around 80 per cent. Many countries with a lower rate of unionisation make collective agreements universally applicable, which means they cover more or less all the companies within a sector and the state plays a stronger role.

An 85-year-old labour market tradition

This way of organising the relationship between workers and employers in Sweden goes a long way back. The 1938 Saltsjöbaden Agreement was a labour market treaty that set out how the social partners should cooperate.

The background was decades of unrest in the labour market with many and sometimes lengthy strikes and lockouts. Until the early 1930s, Sweden had more strike days than any other European country.

Anders Kjellberg

Anders Kjellberg. Photo: Lund Universitet.

Pressure grew to interfere politically against industrial action, but the Saltsjöbaden Agreement meant the parties solved their issues without the state having to legislate or introduce other regulations.

“After that, we got compromise solutions that gave us labour market regulation without state regulation. But Tesla is anti-union and does not want to adapt to fit into the Swedish model,” says Anders Kjellberg.

When agreements have been reached between employees’ and employers’ organisations, a peace obligation comes into force which means Sweden has had few labour market conflicts – even from a Nordic perspective.

However, other trade unions have the right to take sympathy action even when they have entered into a collective agreement themselves. This right is stronger and far-reaching in Sweden than in most other countries. Sympathy action is for instance illegal in the USA and the UK.

No trade union agreements for Tesla workers anywhere

Sweden is not the only place where Tesla refuses to enter into agreements with trade unions. In the USA, the United Auto Workers (UAW) recently signed new agreements with the three largest car companies after a long fight. Now, the UAW is looking to Tesla, who so far has refused to sign an agreement with the union.

German IG Metall is following the Swedish strike action, as they too have failed to get an agreement at Tesla’s car factory outside Berlin which employs 10,000 people. There are reports from there of working conditions that have led to sick leave levels of 30 per cent in certain departments and sometimes even more. 

From Norway, there are reports of employees who are judged on a five-point scale, where those who want high marks, for instance, are expected to work overtime without compensation. The state broadcaster NRK has also documented high levels of sick leave and that people who take sick leave risk losing their jobs.

“Tesla is a trade union enemy that tries to create American conditions in Europe. We won’t let them get away with it,” Jørn Eggum, President of the United Federation of Trade Unions (Fellesforbundet) told NRK. 

“Tesla runs a strict regimen and workers are pitted against each other,” says Anders Kjellberg.

Fellesforbundet also supports the Swedish Tesla strike by refusing to offload Tesla cars in Norway that are scheduled for delivery in Sweden. The federation has announced further boycott action to stop Tesla cars from reaching Sweden via Norway if no agreement is reached before 20 December.

And after six weeks of strike action in Sweden, the Danish 3F trade union has said they too will take sympathy action against Tesla. They will not unload or transport Tesla cars headed to Sweden.

One of the reasons for the international interest in IF Metall’s fight against Tesla is that a collective agreement in Sweden between the union and Tesla would potentially mean an opening for trade union organisation and agreements at Tesla sites elsewhere in the world. 

International attention

Anders Kjellberg has also felt the international attention. Foreign journalists are getting in touch, and the same day we speak he has just been contacted by the Financial Times and a large French newspaper. The fact that the strike at Tesla is taking place in Sweden is not a coincidence, thinks Kjellberg.

“If trade unions were to win against Tesla anywhere, it will be in Sweden with its high trade union membership, high collective agreement coverage and wide-ranging right to strike. IF Metall also has considerable financial muscle with 15 billion kronor (€1.38bn) in their strike fund.”

There is strong support for collective agreements in the Swedish labour market for several reasons. One is that most issues concerning the relationship between the parties are regulated through agreements and therefore do not need to be agreed every time someone is hired. Collective agreements prevent unfair competition between companies through wage dumping and also open the door for dialogue between employees and employers.

Critics say collective agreements are cumbersome and time-consuming because of things like MBL – the Swedish Co-Determination in the Workplace Act. Companies like Tesla want to decide workplace conditions themselves instead.

Tesla strike guard

One of IF Metall's picket guards in front of one of Tesla's workshops. Photo: IF Metall.

Tesla has by and large remained silent since the conflict started, except for Elon Musk’s “Insane” comment on X. It is the US head office that says no, and TM Sweden does not have the right to sign agreements. Instead, the company has moved workers from other workshops to workshops that are on strike – strikebreaking in other words.

“We have not seen strikebreaking in Sweden since 1938,” says Anders Kjellberg. 

Support but also criticism

Some Tesla workers have also been critical to the conflict. Ander Kjellberg says this is because so many of them come from abroad. They have perhaps had help to find housing and have a family to support in their home countries. Tesla workers are also offered stock options and a further career at Tesla.

“It has also emerged that Tesla puts pressure on employees not to go on strike if they want to keep their stock options,” says Anders Kjellberg. 

Many support the strike – both trade unions and influential opinion leaders. Others, including the employers’ organisation Almega, think the sympathy actions have become too comprehensive in comparison to the number of people striking, and that Sweden’s lax sympathy action legislation should be reviewed.

TM Sweden’s court action against the state-owned Swedish Transport Authority after trade unions Seko and ST’s PostNord blockade has also raised questions about the state’s role in the conflict. Two separate district courts have drawn different conclusions about whether the blockade against the distribution of number plates constitutes a so-called security situation or not.

“One of the cornerstones of the Swedish model is that the social partners negotiate and reach a peace obligation by signing a collective agreement. Tesla has chosen instead to take matters to the courts. This shows the company does not accept the current rules.

“But Tesla will not achieve a peace obligation through the courts, only through the current collective agreement negotiations with IF Metall,” says Åsa Erba Stenhammar, head of negotiations for the ST trade union in a press release.


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