International  •  Workplace & Trade Unions

Tesla strike in Sweden: Organise for victory and control of the unions

17 January 2024
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By Jens-Hugo Nyberg, Workers Power Sweden

On 27 October, 130 mechanics at 10 Tesla garages across Sweden went on strike supported by the metalworkers’ union, IF Metall. This came after the company refused to agree to a collective bargaining agreement on the instructions of its international headquarters. As of 7 November, the Transport Union paralysed four ports with a blockade against Tesla, extending to the remaining ports on 17 November. On the same day, the Housing Workers’ Union blocked the cleaning of Tesla workshops, and the Electricians’ Union announced that it would stop the supply of electricity to the workshops and charging stations. The service and communications union, Seko, is also joining the fight. As of 20November, mail will no longer be delivered to Tesla. Norwegian and Danish unions have also taken solidarity action.

In other words, the LO unions are mobilising on a scale not seen since the strike and blockade against the toy manufacturer Toys ‘R’ Us in 1995 when a three-month strike forced the company to give in and sign a collective agreement.

For decades, the unions of the LO (the Swedish TUC) have been reluctant to call strikes and other industrial action. Occasionally, they have been pressured to do so, but even then only half-heartedly, rapidly agreeing to deals that were far worse than their members had voted for. The unwillingness of the leaders of the trade union movement to fight has been decisive in the steady retreat that has moved politics further and further to the right. Thanks to the abolition of specific taxes for the wealthy, Sweden is now a great country to be rich in. For the rest of us, job insecurity and stress is getting worse.

The reason that even the union leaders are showing a willingness to fight is that they feel threatened themselves. They have been willing to back down providing their positions and absurdly high salaries were not affected by poor wage settlements and worsened working conditions of their members. . But when Tesla has refused to engage in collective bargaining, they reached their limits. If Tesla prevails, the position of all trade unions and, therefore, of the trade union bureaucracy, will be seriously jeopardised. 

Tesla is on the defensive in Sweden in the face of this union show of power and will find it difficult to maintain operations on a significant scale without widespread strikebreaking. They could certainly try that, but so far it seems they have little chance of success.

Most other companies in Sweden would probably quickly give in or simply abandon their plans, given the scope of the union campaign. But now it’s Tesla, with the richest man in the world, Elon Musk, in the saddle. He could afford to go on for a long time. The costs for the LO unions involved will also be limited, and they are able to afford a long conflict, since the strike funds accumulated due to their long inaction are quite substantial.

The Right to Strike

The situation could change if the dealers were to launch a major counterattack with the aim of demagogically dragging consumers into the conflict, but even this does not seem likely. What is clear, however, is that the right and the capitalist class as a whole are troubled and angered by what is happening. They obviously dislike the fact that even trade unions with collective agreements and, therefore, a duty to ‘keep the peace’, can participate in sympathy strikes.

Therefore, it is likely that employers’ associations and the right wing parties will launch a political offensive to restrict the right to take solidarity strike action, such as exits in Britain. . This has already begun. For example, Stefan Koskinen, head of the labour market policy department at the Employers’ Association, Almega, was quick to explain that the fact that companies facing solidarity strikes poses a threat to the Swedish mode of industrial relations.

A clear majority of members of parliament belong to parties that have either tabled motions or stated in their party manifestos that they want to restrict the right to strike in solidarity. Of course social democracy may not want to give in so easily. And it possible that the right will shy away from a major battle, but in any case, this is a threat for which we must be prepared.

A defeat Tesla would strengthen the fight for collective bargaining in the US. There, the United Auto Workers (UAW) recently called off a 46-day strike after Ford, Stellantis and General Motors backed down. Musk doesn’t want to give in to the autoworkers any further and doesn’t want to add more fuel to the fire, but at the same time it’s difficult to run a business here when the entire LO has a say in power. Perhaps he will consider a solution similar to that of Amazon in Sweden. There, business is outsourced to subcontractors who are covered by collective agreements. It would certainly be even harder for Musk to pretend that a subcontractor is not Tesla.

Organise the rank-and-file!

This is a battle that the workers’ movement must win. If one company is allowed to refuse collective agreements, others will follow suit. Though this time, the union leadership seems to be committed to the same goal, it would be unwise for the rank and file of the unions to rely on the leadership to lead the struggle to victory, given their record.

The power of these bureaucrats is based on the passivity of the members. A victory against Tesla alone will not halt the decline of the union movement, but it could send a signal. To beat back the prevailing right-wing politics, we need militant and offensive trade unions, with political strikes being an important weapon.

To achieve this, we need to organise a grassroots movement in the unions with the aim of replacing the bureaucrats with genuine representatives of the members’ interests – paid an average worker’s wage and staying in office only for as long as they have the trust of the members and do not hesitate to fight for their interests. All the militant members of the affected unions, all those who are tired of the bad contracts and seeing workers’ movement repeatedly pushed back: now is the best time to organise! Mount maximum on the union leadership not to take a single step back against Tesla, involve the rank and file in organising solidarity action. And organise too to replace all the leaders who have done rotten deals with new leaders who are determined to beat back attacks by right wing politicians and employers. 

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