Tesla strike in Sweden highlights a cultural clash
Tesla technicians who left their jobs in Sweden say they still support the mission of the American company and its headline-grabbing chief executive. But they also want Tesla to embrace the Swedish way of doing business.
They call it the Swedish model, a way of life that has defined the country's economy for decades. At its core is cooperation between employers and employees to ensure that both parties benefit from the company's profits.
Instead, said the four technicians who walked off their jobs on October 27, they faced what they described as a “typical American model”: a six-day workweek, inevitable overtime and an unclear evaluation system for promotions.
“Just work, work, work,” said Janice Kuzma, one of the technicians on strike.
The union representing Tesla workers, IF Metal, won't say how many of the company's 130 technicians have walked out — it may be only a few dozen. 10 service centers of the company will remain open.
But as the strike approaches its third month, it is having a wider impact on the Nordic region. At least 15 other unions have taken action to try to force Tesla to negotiate a collective bargaining agreement to set wages and benefits that reflect industrywide norms in Sweden. Daniel Ives, an analyst at Wedbush Securities, warned that the dispute was becoming “a significant lightning-rod issue for unions globally” for Tesla and its Chief Executive Elon Musk.
Polls show a majority of Swedes support the strike, which is widely seen as a defense of the country's consensus-based way of doing business. Nine out of 10 people in Sweden work under a labor agreement, and strikes are relatively rare. But as the walkouts continue, questions are being raised about whether Sweden's reliance on labor-management agreements denies businesses flexibility and agility.
That division can be seen in the reactions of some of the country's approximately 50,000 Tesla owners, who see the walkout as a power play by a wealthy, politically influential union.
Mr Musk has pushed back efforts by his 127,000 employees worldwide to form a union.
The company has declined repeated requests for comment. Employees wearing Tesla shirts were busy moving cars in and out at a service center in Malmö this month. Strikers at the protest site said some of the workers appeared to have been recently appointed.
There is talk that some Tesla owners can't find anyone to change their tires for the winter – which is essential for driving in Sweden at this time of year.
But fearing that the walkout may be nothing more than a nuisance to Tesla, IF Metall has sought support from other unions.
Unions in Denmark, Norway and Finland, as well as in Sweden, have rallied around IF Metall. This means dockworkers have stopped unloading Teslas arriving from ships; Union members at independent repair shops have stopped servicing Teslas; Postal workers have stopped delivering Tesla mail, including license plates; And electricians have pledged to no longer repair Tesla charging stations.
It may be too early to tell how much loss the company is incurring due to these measures. So far, registration numbers for new vehicles do not show that the strike is having an impact on sales – according to official data, Tesla's Model The cars have been sold.
The company appears to have found a way to avoid the blockade of postal workers by ordering license plates to be shipped directly to customers.
Still, some potential buyers are worried that they won't receive their cars in the promised five to eight weeks, despite Tesla's pledge to conduct business as usual.
“I don't want to make any promises right now,” said Tesla boss John Khademi, who has decided to stop ordering new cars. “I'll wait to see how it performs.”
Solidarity strikes have proven divisive. Some firms that did not have a direct stake in the walkout, such as independent auto repair shops, have lost business because they have collective agreements with IF Metal that require them to cease Tesla-related business. Under Swedish law, if a union calls a solidarity strike, its members must go along with it.
“Then those companies lose a lot of money and they get really depressed,” said Mattias Dahl, vice president of the Confederation of Swedish Enterprise, which represents 60,000 companies.
Some believe that these actions of solidarity have gone too far. “There is no equality here anymore,” said PM Nilsson, chief executive of the company. TimbroA Swedish think tank that promotes liberal ideals and the free market.
He pointed to Spotify, the streaming audio giant founded in Stockholm in 2006, as another company operating in Sweden without a collective agreement. Like Tesla, it comes from a start-up culture.
“Companies in the Swedish labor market should be allowed to exist without a collective agreement,” Mr Nilsson said.
Neither side has indicated that it is ready to back down. IF Metal, which represents workers in other heavy industries, has built up its war chest for decades. It is offering to pay the strikers 130 percent of their wages.
Tesla also has deep pockets — the company is valued at about $817 billion — and says it offers wages and benefits equal to or better than the collective agreement, including offering stock options as attractive incentives.
Tesla demonstrated its willingness to fight by suing both the Swedish agency responsible for automobile registration and the postal company after its license plates were withheld. The lawsuits, filed in November, are ongoing.
Collective bargaining, not law, regulates workplace conditions in Sweden. There is no statutory minimum wage in the country.
Strikes are unusual because once a labor agreement is in effect, the union cannot call it. This peace guarantee has helped keep the number of strike days in Sweden among the lowest in Europe – slightly more than two working days a year were lost due to strikes and lockouts per 1,000 employees from 2010 to 2019, while Norway It was 55 in. and 128 in France, according to a study.
Marie Nilsson has been a member of IF Metal for over 40 years and took over as its leader in 2017. He remembers joining the picket line in 1995 to support workers who went on strike against Toys “R” Us, the last major American company. Who rejected a collective agreement. But the action against Tesla is the first time it has called a strike.
“Employees form unions,” he said. “This is not an outsider.”
He rejected Tesla's argument that it offers conditions that are equal to or better than what workers receive under a collective agreement. “That never happens,” Ms. Nilsson said.
The four technicians who described their reasons for striking said they admired Mr Musk. One talked about how the extended batteries in the new Cybertruck would be a game changer, and Mr. Kuzma drives a Model Y. But each agreed that despite Mr. Musk's talent in revolutionizing electric vehicles, he was fighting a battle with a country that prizes consensus, and that it would be wrong to mix the Swedish model with the United Automobile Workers. The American union that took a tough stance against Detroit's Big Three automakers in the recent strike.
“IF Metal is not the UAW,” said one technician, who declined to give his name because he said he hopes to return to his job at Tesla after the strike and fears repercussions for speaking out. “You have to know how different unions work in different countries.”
The strike has been regularly covered in the Swedish media and has also been featured in television debates. The discussions have become polarized, pitting Tesla fans and owners against the union and its members.
Some Tesla owners have called the strike a publicity-seeking act and a display of union hyperbole. They point to the dozens of technicians who have remained on the job, including some who have not joined a union, as a sign that they are happy with their jobs.
“If working conditions were that bad, they would all quit their jobs,” said Ulf Siklosi, who drives a Tesla Model S. Or they would all join the union.
Daniel Schlag, a fellow Model S owner and an investor in Tesla, said the company had sent letters to owners informing them that 90 percent of Tesla employees were still working, a figure that could not be confirmed.
Mr. Kuzma and several colleagues said they were disappointed by the criticism from Tesla owners. “They don't understand it's about them,” he said. “If there's too much pressure on the workers, they're not going to do a good job of fixing their cars.”
Last week, institutional investors from Sweden's Nordic neighbors – who together manage $1 trillion in assets – sent a letter to Tesla's board saying they were concerned about Tesla's attitude towards workers' rights in Sweden. were “deeply concerned” and were asking for a meeting early next year.
Ms Nilsson would also like to speak to Mr Musk. Asked what she would say if he called her, she replied: “I would love to.”
“I would say, 'Let me explain, and let me hear about your expectations,'” she said. “Let's talk about it.”
Christina Anderson Contributed to the reporting.