Sweeden: The Tesla strike is about more than collective agreements

Article from Veckans Nyheter (Weekly News), online paper of Workers’ Party Group

The outcome may have international significance

On October 27, 130 car mechanics organized by the Swedish industrial and metal workers’ union IF Metall, went on strike at the electric car manufacturer Tesla’s service centers around Sweden. In the following weeks the conflict has expanded in several stages. The background is Tesla’s refusal to sign a collective agreement. Formally, the strike is aimed at Tesla’s Swedish subsidiary, TM Sweden.

On November 3, the strike was extended to mechanics at 17 other workshops that service Tesla cars, in addition to Tesla’s own workshops. This has been expanded to another eight workshops in the last weeks.

There has also been a wave of sympathy action:

  • The Transport Workers Union was the first to decide on sympathy measures. As of November 7, the Transport Workers Union has stopped unloading Tesla cars at the major ports of Gothenburg, Malmö, Södertälje and Trelleborg. Other cars will be unloaded as usual. These sympathy actions were expanded to include the unloading and loading of Tesla cars in all ports in Sweden. The independent Dockworkers union has called to the same actions.
  • The Electricians Union has stopped performing service and repairs at Tesla’s 12 workshops and 213 charging stations around the country.
  • The Building Maintenance Workers Union has started a blockade against all work carried out in Tesla’s premises in Huddinge, Segeltorp, Umeå and Upplands-Väsby.
  • The Service and Communications Workers Union (Seko) has issued a blockade against all delivery and collection of shipments, letters, parcels and pallets made by PostNord and CityMail at all of Tesla’s workplaces in Sweden. (This initially caused a complete halt of license plate deliveries for new Tesla cars, since license plates have to be mailed using PostNord. However, Tesla appealed this and were given the right to pick up the license plates from the transportation authority.)
  • The Painters Union is blockading 109 auto painting companies. The blockade means a halt to all handling of Tesla cars by the affected paint shops.
  • In addition, the Civil Servants Union (ST), and the Musicians Union have also announced sympathy measures. The Musicians are looking at ways to stop certain music to be played in Tesla cars.
  • The largest Danish union, 3F Transport, which organizes dockworkers and transport workers, has called for sympathy strike action with the Swedish Tesla workers. The Danish union will blockade all transports of Tesla cars from Denmark to Sweden beginning on December 19.

Strikebreaking – a shameful practice

Tesla has also escalated the conflict by bringing in strike breakers. According to the union newspaper Dagens Arbete (Daily Work), pickets around Sweden have reported that taxis with unknown people in workshop clothes have arrived at Tesla’s workshops in several cities.

Even before the strike broke out, reports emerged that the company was planning for extensive strikebreaking. This was to be done by moving employees around between workshops that have been taken out on strike – and those that have not been taken out on strike.

Strikebreaking was common in Sweden during the 1800s and early 1900s. At that time, collective agreements were few or non-existent. When there was a recession and profits fell, employers ordered wage cuts. To defend their wages and thus their families’ livelihoods, the workers had no choice but to organize themselves into unions and go on strike.

The employers responded by shutting out the workers and bringing in strikebreakers, or “those willing to work” as they were called. The police and military were on the side of the employers, often protecting the strikebreakers. There was a widespread perception among workers that strikebreaking is one of the ugliest and most shameful things there is. Anyone who breaks the strike is sabotaging for all of those who went on strike – often risking their lives. It was not uncommon for strikebreakers to be physically reprimanded…

Today’s strike at Tesla in Sweden may not be a matter of life or death. But in many other countries, it is. And strikebreaking is still every bit as shameful today as it was 100 years ago.

Bigger picture

The strike at Tesla needs to be seen and understood in a larger context. Firstly, it is a battle against an aggressive and anti-union corporate culture from the United States that has begun to take root in Europe and Sweden.

Tesla’s CEO, Elon Musk, has been considered the world’s richest man since September 2023. Musk likes to portray himself as a kind of “guru” in the tech industry. At the same time, employees at Musk’s company have testified about extremely long working hours, unsafe and poor working conditions, etc. Musk is notorious for his fierce opposition to unions and refusal to sign collective bargaining agreements. In the U.S., he has threatened employees who have joined the union with lost benefits. He has even fired trade unionists in his factories! In Germany, where Tesla has its European factories, they have also refused to sign a collective agreement. This is one side of the larger context in which the strike at Tesla must be seen.

Collective agreements and minimum wages

Secondly, the strike at Tesla is about the future of what is called “the Swedish model” in the labour market. This model means that wages and working conditions in Sweden, since the signing of the so-called Saltsjöbaden Agreement of 1938, have been decided through collective agreements between trade unions and employers – without the state’s involvement. The agreement followed almost two decades of intense labour conflicts in Sweden. During the 1920s and 1930s, Sweden was one of the countries with the bigger number of strikes in Europe. Employers were also aggressively organizing strike breakers.

The Saltsjöbaden Agreement is one of the reasons why there is no legal minimum wage in Sweden, like there is in the United Kingdom, the United States, and many other countries. Instead, it is the collective agreement that determines the minimum wage that the employer may pay. If there is no collective agreement at a workplace, there is also no lower limit for how low wages an employer can set. This means that workers in Sweden, who do not have a collective agreement, are far weaker than those who have a collective agreement.

Over the past 25 years, collective agreements have been increasingly questioned. Their status has also been weakened. This has partly been done by bourgeois parties and commentators, and partly by companies that have refused to sign collective agreements. These have usually been smaller companies. In December 2006, the Hotel and Restaurant Workers Union began a blockade against the salad bar Wild’n Fresh in Gothenburg, which had refused to sign a collective agreement for some time. This became a symbolic battle that went on for several months and attracted a lot of attention from both bourgeois media and politicians. The unions were viciously attacked as “old stubborn men” who were fighting against a young female entrepreneur.

Unfortunately, the Social Democrats have also contributed to the weakening of collective agreements. After the 2018 general elections, the Social Democrats made an agreement (the January Agreement) with several bourgeois parties in order to stay in government. One of these parties was the notoriously anti-union Centre Party. The Social Democratic government agreed that companies can hire staff with wage subsidies even though if these companies did not have a collective agreement. Previously, only companies with collective agreements have been able to receive government subsidies.

Spotify and Tesla

Things have gone in the wrong direction. Today, larger companies are refusing to sign collective agreements. These are often companies in the IT sector, or other newer industries. The music streaming giant Spotify is one of the companies that has attracted attention for their refusal to sign collective agreements. Payment services provider Klarna is another. When the Swedish computer game publisher Paradox Interactive signed a collective agreement in 2020, this was something unusual in the industry. Klarna have recently signed a collective agreement after unions threatened to go on strike. However, Spotify and Tesla are still resisting.

If more and larger players in the Swedish labour market refuse to sign collective agreements, there is a risk that the system will be undermined. This would open the way for dumping of wages and conditions to an extent not seen in Sweden for 100 years. Therefore, the strike against Tesla is of great importance to all workers in Sweden. On the other hand, if the Swedish unions succeed in forcing Tesla to sign collective agreements, this will give a boost to union activists at Tesla in Germany, the United States, and a number of other countries.

At the Tesla picket line

We have interviewed some of the strike guards at the picket line outside Tesla’s service center in Umeå, in northern Sweden.

Do you think you’ll get a collective agreement at Tesla’s service centers?

Yes. There are two outcomes that I can imagine. The first is that Tesla folds, sits down in negotiations and then signs a collective agreement. The second option is that they simply pull out and leave the Swedish market all together. Ok, there is actually a third option and that is that they decide to come back using another supplier.

There have been reports of strikebreakers at several workshops, including the one in Umeå. How do you reach out to and stop the strikebreakers?

We meet them every day at workplaces around the country. We also work with the members who have been their colleagues so that they can put pressure on them. We are not trying to physical stop them at the moment. However, it can come to a point when we don’t get any further. But we’re not implying any criminal activity. At the same time, it must be clear what it means to break a union strike. Today, there is no collective memory of a strike in Sweden, and no clear understanding of what strike-breaking actually means. In the 1930s, you became a strikebreaker because you were starving. Today, no one is starving.

The strike has attracted attention even in the United States. Do you feel like you’re fighting a historic battle?

Yes, I’m convinced that this is historic. It is really important that we win. The Swedish labour market is at a crossroads. Society today has become very individualized. And there are fewer of these newer companies that are interested in signing collective agreements. If Tesla wins, we risk that more companies will remain outside. Or even that companies terminate their collective agreements. If we win, I think more people will want to sign collective agreements. It is also important to remember that about 95 percent of all employees have collective agreements today.

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