Jump to main content
IndustriALL logotype

In Sweden, the fight against Tesla continues

Read this article in:

8 July, 2024Citizens and trade unions in Europe continue to fight against the methods employed by the American company Tesla. While plans to expand the company’s German production site at Grünheide, near Berlin, are still being contested by local environmental activists, Tesla mechanics in Sweden have been on strike for the last eight month. They have been supported by a large cross-industry boycott.

In Malmö, located in the country’s south, a large banner from the Swedish industrial workers’ union IF Metall hangs on the gates of a Tesla dealership. Its message is clear: “KONFLIKT”, followed by the subtitle: “I Sverige kör vi med kollektivavtal” (“In Sweden, we operate under collective bargaining agreements”).

Across the street, two of the mechanics, wearing safety waistcoats in the IF Metall colours, are picketing against Tesla this May. Janis Kuzma and his colleague [who wished to remain anonymous] were motivated to join the movement, launched by IF Metall, by working conditions and their relationship with their superiors.

“If you have different views, you risk being sacked”

Janis Kuzma was the first to lay down his tools last October. He has now been on strike for eight months.

“When we were at full capacity in the summer of 2023, there were 15 of us in the small workshop, we were stepping on each other’s toes,”

he explains.

According to Janis and his colleague, the tight quarters were exacerbated by stress and poor planning.

“Many of them were often off sick because they were physically and mentally exhausted,”

they say. Each mechanic works on five vehicles every day.

If one of the mechanics complained,

“the human resources manager told them that Tesla wasn’t for everyone and that they were free to leave”.

Martin Berglund, mediator for IF Metall, refers to Tesla’s false familial character:

“Tesla’s internal communication is based on the idea that all of its employees are family,” he explains. “But in reality, Tesla is creating a company within a company, where it circumvents rules and regulations on a daily basis”.

What shocks Janis is the total lack of dialogue with his superiors.

“If you don’t agree with everything, if you have different views, you risk getting sacked,”

he adds.

IF Metall recently accused Tesla of illegally terminating an employment contract. In the Umeå workshop, a worker was dismissed earlier than his contract stipulated, after five months instead of six. According to information provided by the IF Metall union, no valid reason was given by the company to justify the dismissal. Despite negotiations, the union was not able to achieve a favourable outcome for the mechanic.

Convinced that his dismissal was linked to his participation in the strike, the union decided to lodge a complaint with the Labour Court. So far, he is the only striker against Tesla whose contract has been ter-minated.

Tesla’s refusal to comply with the Swedish system

In Malmö, seven mechanics have deserted the workbench since the start of the dispute. Nationwide, more than thirty employees are standing up to the electric vehicle manufacturer. Their demands have not changed and can be summed up in a single sentence: they want a collective agreement to be signed. This would be an agreement between the company and its employees, via the unions, which sets out working and production conditions. But for the moment, Tesla is showing no signs of budging.

Collective agreements are the be-all and end-all of the Swedish system, whose Labour Code is succinct. The government allows companies and industry-level unions a great deal of freedom to negotiate the terms and conditions of employment (wages, contracts, etc.), working conditions (working hours, safety, etc.) and social benefits (pensions, holidays, etc.).

Collective agreements, though not compulsory, structure the balance of power between employers and employees in both the private and public sectors and guarantee a degree of stability and fairness within the economic sector.

In Sweden, almost 90 per cent of the workforce is covered by a collective agreement, across all sectors.

The conflict between Tesla and its employees lies in the American company’s categorical refusal to sign the agreement. From autumn 2022 to summer 2023, IF Metall attempted to negotiate with Tesla to draw up a collective agreement. However, the company’s management refused to sign an agreement “on principle,” adding that labour rights were not a part of “the company’s concept”. Last November, Tesla CEO Elon Musk openly stated that he disagrees with the idea of unions: “I think the unions naturally try to create negativity in a company and create a sort of lords and peasants situation”.

In its strike notice, IF Metall insists that it is simply a question of "creating a situation of order, while avoiding conflict”. The agreement would provide security for both employees and employers: “The agreement guarantees that no one can go on strike to obtain better conditions than those set out in the agreement”.

A broad solidarity movement, across borders

Outside the Malmö workshop, the two strikers are joined by four other workers who take turns at the picket line. They are not Tesla employees but instead work in sales, accounting and the hospital sector. They have taken their half-day off to relieve the mechanics and ensure continuous presence.

The picket line is a reflection of the country. In solidarity with the workshop mechanics, the dockers, lorry drivers and electricians responsible for maintaining car charging stations have started to boycott Tesla. From the musicians’ union to the postal workers’ union, several trades have joined IF Metall’s fight.

“Port workers are still refusing to unload cars chartered by ship,”

explains Johan Järvklo, International Secretary of IF Metall.

“Tesla is now importing its vehicles by truck. In Vetlanda, unionised Hydro employees have refused to produce parts for Tesla”.

Sympathy for the strikers has even spread beyond Sweden’s borders. Last December, Danish transport union 3F Transport announced a blockade of the manufacturer’s cars in ports. This was followed by similar actions by Fellesforbundet in Norway and AKT in Finland.

The list continues to grow. At the beginning of May, Unionen, the union organisation for managers and office workers, lent its support to the strike at Tesla’s workshops. As a result, DEKRA International employees will no longer be inspecting products made by the the company.

“In the US and Germany, the unions are also fighting for a collective agreement,”

explains Johan Järvklo.

“It’s really a global struggle and Sweden is currently at the forefront”.

At Tesla’s only European plant in Grünheide, Germany, IF Metall’s German counterpart IG Metall entered the works council for the first time in the latest internal elections at the beginning of 2024. However, the union failed to achieve an absolute majority of seats and is thus legally unable to negotiate a collective agreement, which it wishes to do on wages, among other issues. IG Metall is actively working to recruit new members to change this situation.

Violations of the right to collective bargaining are becoming increasingly widespread. According to the International Trade Union Confederation’s latest annual Global Rights Index report, such violations have been observed in more than half of European countries in 2023 and in 73 per cent of countries worldwide.

All the more reason for IF Metall to see this strike through to the end.

“This is about workers’ rights and their bargaining power, which is vital,”

adds Mr Järvklo.

“We don’t want the next companies to go down the same road and reject collective agreements too”.

The union has no intention of giving up after eight months of struggle. By way of comparison, in 1995, Swedish employees at Toys “R” Us fought for three months before securing an agreement.

Strikebreakers called in to hamper the movement

Anders Kjellberg is a sociologist at Lund University and a specialist in trade unions. As he sees it, this strike differs from recent social movements in one significant way: Tesla is refusing all real negotiations and is calling in scabs.

“Twenty-three workers from abroad have replaced the strikers,”

explains Mr Kjellberg, who describes the strategy as unprecedented.

“In 1995, Toys ‘R’ Us circumvented the strike by using scabs within the factory. Here, Tesla is importing labour from its workshops in Europe”.

In Kjellberg’s view, this is a problem for the movement, which he believes is becoming less efficient.

Beyond the fact that they are strike-breakers, Janis and his colleague have other doubts about the new recruits in the Malmö workshop.

“To be hired in the workshop now, all you have to do is show a great interest in Tesla,”

they argue.

“Qualifications are not essential”.

A sales manager pulls a car out of the garage for a check-up. It makes a suspicious noise, a rubbing sound from the wheels. Janis approaches the vehicle - he maintains good relations with his colleagues - and quickly notices that the front and rear wheels are inverted.

“It’s inexperience and stress that lead to this kind of thing,”

he says.

According to the strikers, the workshop is currently running slowly with the new recruits. Inside the garage, a banner hangs showing a hedgehog in a yellow waistcoat with the slogan “Tack, det är bra” (‘thanks, that’s fine’ in Swedish), Tesla’s way of letting them know that it’s doing just fine both without them and without conventions.

There is power in a union

The banner symbolises Tesla’s tone deaf attitude to the conflict. However, IF Metall is not prepared to give up and let the multinational win just yet. The Swedish union is in talks with its counterparts IG Metall in Germany and United Auto Workers (UAW) in the United States about a global strategy to continue the fight.

On 13 June, at Tesla’s annual shareholders’ meeting, a group of investors called on the Board of Directors to adopt a policy of respect for freedom of association and collective bargaining within the company.

“This proposal was written in international cooperation with several workers’ unions,”

Johan Järvklo says. However, the proposal was rejected by the shareholders.

For Janis, there is no alternative:

“I’ll stay on strike for months or even years to get this collective agreement. I’m doing it less for myself than for the next generation, to ensure that they have good working conditions”.

It’s time for a shift change at the picket line. Before Janis heads off to get something to eat, he performs his ritual: he drives past the car dealership at a snail’s pace, windows down and speakers turned all the way up, playing There is Power in a Union, the punk rock anthem written by British singer Billy Bragg in 1986.

Photo: Janis Kuzma, currently on strike, is determined to fight until a collective agreement is reached with Tesla, his employer. 10 May 2024, Malmö.

Photo credit: Guillaume Amouret

This article was originally published on Equal Times