December 11, 2023

Tesla service workers in Sweden are on strike, and Tesla commented publicly on the strike for the first time as sympathy strikes expand to shipping, cleaning and electrical workers.

Late last month, Tesla service workers in Sweden threatened to strike over the lack of a collective bargaining agreement covering their working conditions. After getting no response from Tesla, the strike began almost two weeks ago.

Tesla does not have any manufacturing presence in Sweden, but since EVs are very popular in Sweden with about a 60% share of the new car market, there are certainly plenty of Teslas that need to be serviced.

But those Tesla service workers are not covered by a collective bargaining agreement, unlike 90% of Swedish employees. And IF Metall, a major union covering hundreds of thousands of industrial workers across Sweden, says that’s a problem. So it is leading a strike against the company.

The strike is relatively small, covering about 130 workers in 7 locations. Not everyone who works at these locations is unionized, and because of European data privacy rules, neither the union nor the workers need to specify exactly which workers are part of the union.

While 130 workers may sound like a small amount across a whole country, Sweden saw a similarly-small strike when Toys ‘R’ Us entered Sweden and refused to sign a collective bargaining agreement. About 80 retail workers decided to strike, and that strike spread to many other industries until Toys ‘R’ Us was forced to relent, making Sweden the only territory in the world where the company signed a collective bargaining agreement.

Because of near-universal collective bargaining coverage and a history of worker victories, strikes are relatively rare in Sweden. Companies know that it’s better just to come to the table rather than to let negotiations reach strike conditions.

So Sweden has a strong history with enforcing “the Swedish model” of labor, how is it going with Tesla, just a couple weeks in?

Is work stopped, or not?

The question of how effective the strike has been so far is still an open one. On the one hand, on the day the strike began, Tesla Club Sweden suggested that nobody showed up after visiting a single service center near Stockholm and talking to some of the employees there.

On the other hand, Dagens Arbete, a Swedish labor newspaper, reported on several locations and said that some of them have seen significant strike action and some have not. For example, nobody is on strike in Norrköping but almost everyone is in Umeå. And picketers were confronted by “an English-speaking man” in Malmö, who said he would call the police if they stepped out of line. And IF Metall says there has been “strong support” for the strike from workers.

Tesla committed to hiring strikebreakers, also known as “scabs,” and there have been reports of unidentified mechanics showing up in taxis in certain locations, which could suggest new hires, or that Tesla is shuffling remaining employees from one location to another. IF Metall says that hiring strikebreakers “would be crossing all boundaries. That kind of thing happened in Sweden in the 1920s and 30s.”

Tesla responds, negotiations begin

IF Metall sat down with Tesla on November 1 and November 6 for discussions. IF Metall says the November 1 meeting was constructive, but Monday’s discussion yielded nothing according to Vali-Pekka Säikkälä from IF Metall. He said “We are clear, there will be no agreement.”

After the second meeting, Tesla issued a public statement on the strike for the first time – a rare event for Tesla, which generally does not make public comments given that it does not have a PR/communications department (though it is more common for Tesla to make comment in other countries).

In TT, the Swedish national wire service, a Tesla representative was quoted thusly:

It is unfortunate that IF Metall has taken these measures. Tesla follows Swedish labor market regulations, but like many other companies has chosen not to enter into a collective agreement. We already offer equivalent or better agreements than those covered by collective bargaining and find no reason to sign any other agreement

But strikers say the issue is less about benefits such as pay, and more about working conditions and stability. Some Tesla employees say that timelines are far too strict for repairs, leading Tesla to send out damaged cars and rewarding employees who do incomplete work, while punishing those who take the time to completely solve a problem.

Strike expands to dockworkers, cleaners, third-party shops

Today, the strike expanded to dockworkers. The Swedish Dockworkers union said that if the strike was not resolved by November 7th, it would stop unloading vehicles in four Swedish ports, and the deadline for that began today. So Tesla will no longer be able to ship to Malmö, Södertälje, Gothenburg and Trelleborg.

But it was reported this week by SVT that Tesla is said to have rearranged its car transports around the affected ports. Typically one ship a week enters the port at Södertälje, for example, but there are no transports expected from the car brand according to the CEO of the port.

And so the dockworkers union has decided to expand its work stoppage across all ports, rather than just the four previously listed. Dockworkers will continue to unload docks across the country, but will not unload Tesla cars, starting November 17th.

In addition, Fastighets, the Swedish building maintenance workers’ union, said it will join the strike at Tesla facilities in Huddinge, Segeltorp, Umeå and Upplands Väsby on the same date, November 17th. This means that these facilities will not be cleaned by union workers starting on that date.

When Tesla consistently refuses to sign a collective agreement, it poses a threat to the stability of the Swedish labor market. Everyone who works in Sweden must be covered by Swedish wages and Swedish conditions

Joakim Oscarsson, Fastighets, in a comment to SVT

The strike has expanded to third-party repair shops as well, with 17 additional shops across the country refusing to work on Tesla vehicles. SVT attempted to interview one of these shops in Gothenburg, which responded “we have decided not to participate in media contexts during this conflict and during ongoing negotiations as we are not a party to the primary conflict.”

And Elektrikerna, the Swedish electricians’ union, will also refuse to do electrical work at Tesla’s workshops and charging stations, starting November 15. Other unions that are part of LO, Sweden’s Trade Union Confederation, may join as time goes on.

Electrek’s Take

As is the case in a necessarily oppositional conflict like this, there are a lot of competing voices for what is or is not happening in the strike.

And as I’ve stated before in strike-related articles, personally, I’m pro-union. And I think that everyone should be – it only makes sense that people should have their interests collectively represented, and that people should be able to join together to support each other and exercise their power collectively, instead of individually.

This is precisely what companies do with industry organizations, lobby organizations, chambers of commerce, and so on. And it’s what people do when sorting themselves into local, state, or national governments. So naturally, workers should do the same.

We’ve seen it work in the US, where UAW just recently won big gains with its unprecedented strike against all three of the largest American automakers, and this ended up being a boon for other workers as well when Toyota raised wages immediately after the strike was resolved.

It seems to be a success in Sweden, too, where workers typically have high median wages, high levels of life satisfaction and generally good quality of life and good labor protections. These sorts of protections become the standard when 90% of the country is covered by collective bargaining – they’re so standard that Sweden in fact does not have a national minimum wage, since union power is strong enough to ensure that workers get treated well without the force of law getting involved.

And, in our significant experience with Tesla, it is apparent that it is a company that offers good potential gains for workers, but suffers from high turnover and burnout, and plays fast and loose when relating to government regulations. Employees in one Swedish service center say that isn’t the case, at least according to a Tesla fan forum, so maybe it’s different in Sweden. But here in California, Tesla employees universally acknowledge the high turnover – even the ones that have been with the company for a long time themselves.

So I tend to think that the strikers likely have a point – everything I know about Tesla makes the reports of rushed work and tough conditions completely believable. And while Tesla’s “startup mentality” suggests that a scrappy, hardworking approach is the best way to move forward, maybe a company that is now 20 years old and has well over 100k employees could stand to mature a bit, focus on quality and employee retention (aiding institutional memory, which is lacking at Tesla), and play by the rules in a country that has stopped other anti-union companies dead in their tracks before.

FTC: We use income earning auto affiliate links. More.