The unlikely conflict between the world's largest electric vehicle maker and one of Sweden's main unions threatens to spread like an oil slick across northern Europe. Kind of like a Tesla vs. Scandinavia. "Tesla creates cars that are sustainable for the climate. Now is the time to create sustainable working conditions for employees. It's time for a collective bargaining agreement!" cry the heads of IF Metall, billionaire Elon Musk's latest nightmare. His company doesn't manufacture in the Nordic country, but 120 mechanics from seven garages around the country repair cars when they run into a problem. A month and a half ago they went on strike demanding a collective agreement, but what at first might have seemed like a minor labour dispute given the enormous size of Tesla, with a global workforce of 127,000 employees, is gaining dimension week by week.
The first support for the strikers came from dock workers on 7 November. They blocked Tesla cars from entering Sweden's four largest ports. Then on all of them. It was just the beginning of the boycott. Employees of the power grid, Elektrikerna, refused to maintain Tesla Supercharger stations. Taxi drivers in Stockholm threatened to suspend new vehicle orders. Fifty workers at Hydro Extrusions, which supplies Tesla with aluminum components used to bolster safety, stayed home or performed other tasks. The body painters stopped painting Teslas. Housekeepers did not clean up their buildings. Even the Swedish postal service refused to hand over license plates to Tesla, effectively preventing its new cars from driving.
The reaction of Musk's company was twofold. On the one hand, the controversial executive described as "insane" the veto of postal service workers on X, the social network he owns, and in an interview with The New York Times even showed his disagreement with the very idea of the existence of unions. The second front was judicial: he went to court to denounce the illegality of the boycott of the postal service. The judges, however, concluded on Thursday that PostNord is not obliged to make the license plate deliveries.
The IF Metall trade union argues that collective agreements are the basis of the Swedish labour model, and that approximately nine out of ten workers are covered by them throughout the country, which has proven to be a successful formula for maintaining social peace. Thanks to their existence, they insist, certain working conditions are guaranteed sector by sector, from salaries to pensions, including the length of the working day or vacations.
But the wave of union sympathy unleashed, the media resonance of the case, and the disproportionate size of the enemy have turned the battle against Tesla into much more than a simple fight for the rights of a few dozen mechanics. It has become a tense battle that measures the power of unions against that of multinationals, the result of which may set precedents: if workers bend their arm to Tesla, few companies will dare to embark on similar challenges in the future.
Denmark, Norway and Finland
The unions have shown an unexpected capacity for mobilisation, to the point of extending the case to neighbouring countries. On Tuesday, the Danish trade union 3F, which its Swedish counterpart asked for help, announced that it will refuse to unload or transport cars made by the U.S. car company for customers in Sweden. "Solidarity is the cornerstone of the trade union movement and extends beyond borders," said its president, Jan Villadsen. Also in Denmark, a pension fund told Reuters it has sold its 63 million euro stake in Tesla because of the company's refusal to make a deal with unions.
Norway and Finland may be the next pieces in the chess game. Unions in the first country are considering their own response in a key country for Tesla, where it sells more vehicles in its fourth market — the top three are the United States, Germany and the United Kingdom — than in Sweden. And the Finnish transport workers' union, AKT, decided on Thursday to join the sympathy strike against Tesla, saying it would start a blockade of Sweden-bound Tesla vehicles at all Finnish ports from Dec. 20.
It remains to be seen to what extent the conflict translates into a reputational blow for the company, and whether Tesla's Scandinavian customers choose other alternatives in retaliation or decide to ignore the case and opt to continue trusting the brand, the eighth in the world by stock market value with more than 700,000 million euros. Well ahead of the rest of the competitors in its sector. It doesn't look like Elon Musk, accustomed to moving like a fish in water in the midst of scandal, is going to start worrying at this point what the rest of the world thinks of him or his company, but at the very least the fierce resistance of the unions to give in will cost him a handful of millions.
Follow all the information from Economía y Negocios on Facebook and X, or in our weekly newsletter
Subscribe to continue reading
Read without limits
I'm already a subscriber