Unions Are Finally Teaching Elon Musk a Lesson in Europe, and the U.S. Could Be Next

After Elon Musk refused to sign a collective bargaining agreement, Swedish Tesla workers are on strike, and dock workers are refusing to let Teslas into the country in solidarity.
tesla strikers in front of swedish tesla building
Image Credit: Magnus Kvandal via Getty Images

Tesla CEO Elon Musk is the richest man in the world. He’s also notoriously anti-union on a global scale. But Tesla workers throughout Europe are taking a stand against the company for refusing to sign collective bargaining agreements with them, something workers in the U.S. haven’t yet been able to accomplish. But U.S. unions such as United Auto Workers, which just won a historic deal after striking against other car manufacturers, are sizing up Tesla, and European organizing success might be the push they need. 


Swedish Tesla workers went on strike on Friday after Musk refused to bargain with Swedish trade union IF Metall. Though U.S. Tesla workers have attempted to organize, and have allegedly been fired for doing so, this is the first time a formal strike has been called against the company anywhere in the world. 

“The main reason for IF Metall to take industrial action at Tesla is to ensure that our members have decent and safe working conditions,” IF Metall’s website states in English. “Over a long period of time, we have attempted to discuss with Tesla the signing of a collective agreement, yet without success. Now we see no solution other than to take industrial action.”

IF Metall originally called the strike against Tesla at one repair facility in Sweden, where there are no Tesla factories, because the company refused to negotiate a contract that covered around 120 unionized workers at that facility. At another bargaining session held by the country's Mediation Institute, Tesla Sweden executives reportedly cited a company policy against signing collective agreements in any country. (A Tesla Europe spokesperson did not respond to a request for comment asking for confirmation of this policy.) 


IF Metall then called all its Tesla repair technicians to strike. The strike, it said, will not affect services on any other brand of car. Dockworkers in the Swedish Transport Workers Union have also announced a blockade against loading or unloading any Teslas in Sweden’s four main ports, in solidarity with IF Metall. This means no Teslas are able to enter the country. The blockade began on Tuesday.

“Now we are escalating the conflict,” said Transport union chairman Tommy Wreeth in a statement on Tuesday, which was translated from Swedish. “There will be a total stop for Tesla cars in all of Sweden’s ports. We have received signals that Tesla cars are planned to be redirected to other Swedish ports, and we are now closing off that possibility entirely. Of course, we have further plans for countermeasures to get Tesla to sign a collective agreement.” 

In a statement to Swedish news outlet SVT, a Tesla spokesperson was quoted as saying in Swedish, “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.”


Branislav Rugani, the international confederal secretary for French trade union Force Ouvrière, told Motherboard in a phone call in French that Tesla’s policy was “an ideology of folly.”

“Tesla wants to create a new social model,” Rugani said. “We can’t allow that. When collective agreements and negotiation is the basis of everything, they’re obligated to negotiate. If they don’t, they’re going to lose their European market share.”

Swedish Prime Minister Ulf Kristersson also commented on the situation in a statement to news outlet TT. “Swedish legislation is clear and Swedish tradition in the labor market is clear, so I expect that this will be resolved in a normal way between the parties,” he said. Tesla executives agreed to meet with the Swedish union on Monday, though no updates to the strike have yet been announced.

“As a French trade unionist, I completely agree with the union strike in Sweden,” Rugani said. “Eighty percent of workers are covered by union agreements. We can’t let a foreign company come to European soil and disobey the rules we’ve put in place. If we let them come in, and they refuse to negotiate—it’s the beginning of the end. Workers’ rights would be lost.” 

Swedish union membership sits at around 70 percent, while French union membership is around eight percent—but because the European union contract model is fundamentally different from that of the U.S., many more workers are covered by contracts, even if they are not themselves union members.


Labor actions in Europe have seemingly already paid dividends for Tesla workers. Tesla factory workers in Germany received a pay raise of 4 percent over the weekend after Musk visited the factory and promised its workers would build the next generation of Teslas. The wage announcement came after IG Metall, a German metalworkers union affiliated with IF Metall in Sweden, organized a collective action at the factory to tell workers about unionization. IG Metall has been trying to unionize Tesla workers, but the company so far remains the only EV manufacturer in the country not to have a collective bargaining agreement. 

A spokesperson for IG Metall told Motherboard in an email in German that they couldn’t comment on the Swedish strike, but that they were following the events “very closely and with solidarity for our colleagues in Sweden.”

“We are currently working very intensively to improve working conditions at Tesla in Germany,” the spokesperson wrote. “We’ve received much information from employees about their poor working conditions.” The spokesperson pointed Motherboard to numerous press releases from the union over the past week, leading up to the wage increase


Rugani told Motherboard that he was not aware of any efforts to organize any Tesla workers in France, though the country has been trying to convince Tesla to build its second European factory there.

The labor actions in Europe could be consequential in the U.S. The United Auto Workers union, which recently ended a strike after winning bargaining agreements with the three largest auto manufacturers in the U.S., has also announced its intentions to unionize the company. UAW President Shawn Fain told Bloomberg News he believed it was “doable,” though the union has not yet garnered enough support in Tesla factories to begin official organizing.


Rugani said that the events in Sweden and Germany could certainly influence U.S. Tesla union efforts. “Unions are organized on an international level,” Rugani said. “They talk amongst themselves. When they return to their respective countries, they organize on a local level.” He named the AFL-CIO, the largest coalition of unions in the U.S., as a critical party with regard to transferring European organizing successes to the U.S. The UAW is a member union of the AFL-CIO. 

Labor experts also believe that Tesla will get confronted with a new reality in Europe, particularly in Germany, where every auto-maker has been unionized for decades. Though Tesla is not obligated to join the employers’ association that bargains with the union, if its workers elect to join unions, there would be significant legal pressure for it to do so. In order to keep its factories open, then, the company might have to revise its policy against signing on to any collective bargaining agreements. That could open a window of opportunity for Tesla workers in the U.S., who labor experts say are in a good position to bargain after the UAW’s historic contract gains.

A Tesla spokesperson for North America did not respond to a request for comment. Elon Musk has also not publicly said anything about the events in Europe.

That’s not to say that replicating the success of labor unions in Europe will be easy for U.S. workers. Musk has long been notoriously against union organizing. In 2018, Musk wrote in a tweet that he would remove Tesla employees’ stock options if they attempted to unionize. The National Labor Relations Board found him guilty of violating labor law, as these stock options constituted a part of their pay. When a group of Tesla workers in Buffalo, NY, announced their intent to unionize earlier this year, the company fired dozens of them. It then put out a memo addressing “false allegations” regarding the reason they had been fired—namely, unionizing. 

There are also significant differences in the union models of Europe and the U.S. Sweden’s unions operate based on sectoral bargaining, as do France and Germany. Instead of individual unions negotiating with individual companies, as is the case in the U.S., workers are given the option to join a union that covers their entire industry. That union will then bargain with companies in the industry, or sector, to institute a collective bargaining agreement that applies to all workers in that sector, regardless of union status.

“This conflict is about wages, pensions and insurance for our members who work at Tesla,” said IF Metall president Marie Nilsson in a press release, as translated from Swedish. “But fundamentally, it is also about standing up for the entire Swedish labor market model. In Sweden, it is unions and employers who together agree on wages and working conditions in collective agreement negotiations.”