Sweden: Tesla strike – a taste of working-class power

Builders, painters, dockers, factory workers, electricians, postal workers: all are now acting together to win collective agreements for the workers at Tesla, in a battle that has become a decisive showdown. In Denmark, Norway and Finland, dock and truck workers have announced that they will join the fight. 

[Originally published in Swedish at marxist.se]

For a man who doesn't hesitate to write the most hair-raising nonsense on his private kingdom X (formerly Twitter), Elon Musk has been remarkably quiet about the Tesla strike. He only let loose a brief sentence when the full force of the sympathy strikes in Sweden became known:

“This is insane”, he wrote. 

Truly it is an insane world, where ordinary workers challenge his power – and show they can win! 

No wonder he “disagree[s] with the idea of unions,” as he put it a few days later in one of his many rambling interviews. He doesn’t like things that “creates a lords and peasants kind of thing,” to quote his crystal clear justification to the New York Times

Apparently he prefers the capitalist–wage slave relationship, where the latter humbly thanks the boss for any crumbs from his table. This is precisely what his workers are now fighting against.

Mr Musk’s unusual silence is hardly a matter of newfound modesty. The problem is that all the surveys indicate solid support for the right of Tesla workers to collective agreements. And the battle in Sweden could inspire more of his workers around the world to organise against his exploitation. The more attention the strike gets, the more people will be inspired.

Tesla’s terrible conditions

In a letter to all Swedes who bought a Tesla, the company says its employees are “rewarded” with “fair conditions and a good working environment”. This is, of course, a lie.

The average salary for Tesla car mechanics in Sweden is below the industry average. Pension contributions are also lower. Workers’ productivity is evaluated according to a rating system from one to five, where those who get a one – i.e. are not productive enough – risk being fired. 

The final wage each month is set according to a piecework system, which measures how long it takes each worker to complete different tasks. All in order to maximise the pace of work.

Tesla’s allegedly favourable conditions for workers consist only of a stock option programme – but this can only be used after a four-year period. The unreliability of this is not only reflected in the ups and downs of the stock market. Tesla itself made it crystal clear by threatening to withdraw the vested options for those on strike. This ‘benefit’ is now being used as another tool to bring workers to their knees.

Olof Sjöström, an electric car technician at Tesla, shows the wide range of consequences of Tesla's anti-union policy in DN

“No one knows about the regulations on working hours… Managers do not know what chemicals we work with and no risk assessments are made,” he explained.

He says that people do not dare to raise the problems.

“There is no basic security, people can be fired from one day to the next. It’s not impossible that they will fire everyone who is on strike to avoid signing a collective agreement.”

In one sentence he sums up what the battle is about from the workers’ point of view.

“Foreign companies should not be allowed to come here and do whatever the hell they want.”

A decisive battle

Säikkälä Image Daniel Roos IF MetallIF Metall spent six years trying to convince Tesla of “the benefits of collective agreements”, as Veli-Pekka Säikkälä put it / Image: Daniel Roos, IF Metall

Before calling a strike, IF Metall spent six years trying to negotiate with and convince Tesla of “the benefits of collective agreements”, as contract secretary Veli-Pekka Säikkälä put it. Tesla refused point blank.

The reason is not so much their Swedish operations, but the risk of workers in countries with large Tesla industries taking up the fight. Sweden is a very small part of the nearly 130,000 employees (including subcontractors) worldwide who produce profits for Mr. Musk. The giant factory in Texas alone employs over 12,000 workers, and an even bigger one is being built in Mexico. In Europe, the biggest presence is in Germany, with 11,000 employees.

The nervousness is palpable. In Germany, the metal union has reported rapid membership growth at Tesla factories, and to prevent a Swedish-style development, Tesla gave its German workers a four percent wage increase in one fell swoop. 

In the US, Tesla workers have been trying for years to form a union for their workplaces. As recently as February, workers at Tesla in Buffalo tried to organise. Tesla responded by firing around 30 people. Now, after a successful strike against the three largest car manufacturers in the US, the United Auto Workers (UAW) are preparing for battle against Tesla. 

“One of our biggest goals coming out of this historic contract victory is to organise like we’ve never organised before,” said President Shawn Fain in October.

If workers in Germany and the US fight for better conditions, it will hurt billionaire Musk’s profits. He can’t let that happen. Therefore, the Swedish workers must be crushed.

Swedish workers cannot afford to lose either. Musk opposes collective agreements precisely because they guarantee wages, employment conditions, insurance, health and safety, etc., precisely because they protect against the raw exploitation of workers.

If you lose at Tesla, other companies will follow. 

“If we were to say that a big company like Tesla doesn't need collective agreements, it would be very difficult to justify that others should have collective agreements,” explains IF Metall's Veli-Pekka Säikkälä in Dagens Arbete.

Attacks on a new level

In particular, Tesla’s systematic use of strikebreakers is a declaration of war against the entire labour movement. You have to go back 90 years to see the bourgeoisie using strikebreakers on such a scale in Sweden.

The decisive battle 90 years ago took place in Ådalen. In May 1931, the military was called in to ‘protect’ strikebreakers in Ådalen. During a demonstration, they shot dead five unarmed workers. Hundreds of thousands responded by going out in mass demonstrations across the country. A full-scale general strike broke out throughout Ådalen, where the workers, through the Trade Union Confederation (LO), effectively took control of society. 

It was the mass struggle of the 1930s that forced the bourgeoisie to change its strategy. The huge profits of the post-war economic boom then made it more practical for capital to buy labour peace than to risk major conflicts.

But it is more than 40 years since capitalism was able to offer any real improvements for workers in Sweden. And with the current crisis, on the contrary, the bourgeoisie is going on the offensive.

Under the Social Democratic Löfvén government, the Employment Security Law (LAS) was weakened and the right to strike was curtailed. During almost two years of inflationary crisis, the capitalists have campaigned – together with the trade unions – for workers to pay through reduced real wages. The result is that real wages have fallen by almost 10 percent. The conservative Kristersson government has unleashed yet another wave of cuts to welfare, and – for the first time since the shootings in Ådalen – opened the door to calling out the military on the streets against civilians.

On not a single issue has the bourgeoisie faced any serious opposition from the labour movement – quite the contrary. This has allowed them to be all the more ruthless.

In relation to the current conflict, the bourgeoisie’s interest group, the Confederation of Swedish Enterprise (Svenskt näringsliv), has been largely passive. For them, “the benefits of collective agreements,” as IF Metall's Säikkälä says, have been tangible. Every few years, they have engaged in almost ritual conflicts with the union leadership, only to then sign ‘no strike’ agreements, making strikes illegal, without granting a single significant improvement.

In the last decades of big business’ offensive, this has been, from their point of view, an excellent arrangement. They are therefore not particularly fond of Musk’s refusal to sign collective agreements. Rather, the Swedish capitalists express irritation that Tesla is stirring the pot and provoking strikes, unnecessarily – from their point of view.

They are visibly troubled by the effectiveness of the sympathy strikes. Former state secretary PM Nilsson, later CEO of the bourgeois think-tank Timbro, wrote in DI about how: “Tesla is fighting for the freedom of all companies.” His attitude is symptomatic of the Swedish bourgeoisie’s attitude: he defends IF Metall’s right to (an ineffective) strike, but is alarmed by the sympathy strikes. 

“IF Metall is one of Sweden’s most serious trade unions. No one thinks that the union goes into conflict unnecessarily; on the contrary, the metal club has a well-founded reputation for being a constructive party in the workplace. IF Metall also has the right to go into conflict with Tesla. The problem is the unregulated sympathy measures which, combined with the LO leadership’s frivolous and brutal attitude – they have said they can drive Tesla out of the country – have made the conflict unsolvable.”

Although the strike at Tesla itself can at best be described as partial – they have, for example, opened a new service centre in Jönköping where not a single worker is on strike – workers have effectively paralysed operations:

  • Port workers are refusing to unload Tesla cars in all Swedish ports. 
  • Electricians are refusing to service and repair Tesla workshops and charging stations. 
  • Cleaners are refusing to clean several of their workshops. 
  • Postal workers are refusing to deliver to their workshops – which means, among other things, that they cannot get licence plates for their cars. 
  • The musicians’ union has stopped certain music from being played in Tesla cars.
  • Painters are refusing to paint Tesla cars at over 100 companies.
  • Construction workers are refusing to service, repair, and rebuild Tesla cars.

It is Tesla’s attempt to circumvent this that has forced the strike to go international. From 20 December, the Danish, Norwegian and Finnish unions are blocking all imports of Tesla cars into Sweden, both by port and truck.

In miniature, we see here a shining example of the strength of the international working class. If the workers collectively decide to block Tesla, not even the richest man in the world can beat them. This is an inspiration to workers everywhere. No wonder the Swedish capitalists have started muttering about restricting the right to strike in sympathy as well.

Get tough – for a fighting labour movement!

7 in 10 people think the Tesla strike is right – only 1 in 10 oppose it. 83 percent think it is important that Swedish collective agreements should apply in Sweden. 

This reflects quite well the objective balance of power between the classes in Sweden. The working class – those of us who sell our labour power for wages – make up the overwhelming majority of society. In addition, there is a degree of organisation that is almost unprecedented internationally. Although it has fallen in recent years, it still stands at around 60 percent for trade union confederation LO, and over 70 percent for the civil servants confederation TCO. 

And the unions' strike funds are almost overflowing. IF Metall alone is sitting on 10 billion kronor (almost a billion euros). If necessary, the strike at Tesla could be maintained “for about 500 years,” according to a press officer. Objectively speaking, the working class has never in history been as strong as it is now.

comrades Image RevolutionThe passive support that currently exists from the strike must be made active / Image: Revolution

Yet the unions have not taken on a single serious fight in 20 years. Under the offensive of capital, they have just retreated and retreated, while workers’ conditions have deteriorated across the board. When they argued against wage increases for workers in the last year – in a situation of massive corporate profits – it must have broken some kind of record in self-harm.

They did everything to avoid having to take on Tesla. But if they had backed down on the issue of collective agreements, they would have given up their own raison d'être. Time and again, IF Metall management emphasises that this is all the battle is about, from their point of view. 

“We just want a collective agreement in Sweden. We don’t give a shit about Musk,” agreement secretary Säikkälä emphasised in SvD.

He also admitted something that is painfully obvious to anyone who has followed the situation: 

“We are not used to being on strike.”

The metal newspaper Dagens arbete aptly described the first day of the strike as “any grey autumn day”, “raw and cold”. 

“A small tent with the IF Metall logo at the gates of Tesla’s workshop outside Uppsala gave away that something was going on. Some people in yellow conflict vests were unpacking leaflets about collective agreements and industrial action. A couple of journalists from the local media had turned up. Some distance away, Veli-Pekka Säikkälä, IF Metall's contract secretary, was pacing back and forth.”

This was the crucial first day. The reports from the rest of the country sound even bleaker. No wonder they have failed so miserably to stop strikebreaking.

The white-collar workers at the Tesla sites are organised by Unionen. They have refused to call them out on strike because they believe they need to negotiate further with Tesla first and build a “stronger position”. It is hard to imagine a greater idiocy. If IF Metall wins collective agreements, it will be easy for Unionen to do the same. If IF Metall loses, it will be difficult for Unionen to win alone. Morale and self-confidence is a crucial issue in strikes. If the white-collar workers go out on strike, it will strengthen the determination of the engineering workers enormously. United we stand, divided we fall.

IF Metall has been trying to get more people out by raising strike pay to 130 percent of wages, and promising legal action to support those who lose their jobs for going on strike. But even if they eventually win in the labour court, it misses the point. Workers want a job to go to when the strike is over. To get everyone out, you need to show the workers that you will win. This is especially true considering that they until now consistently have given in to the demands of the capitalists.

The passive support that currently exists from the strike must be made active. The fact that all trade union leaders have expressed their support is good, but we must start mobilising in the workplaces. The question of the right to collective agreements affects everyone. 

Just by mobilising safety reps and trade unions, you would get thousands of people out on support demonstrations all over the country – and if they start seriously discussing the issue in the workplace, we are talking about tens of thousands. 

Such a movement would do 100 times more to convince those workers not yet on strike at Tesla to do so than even the most wonderful offers from IF Metall leadership. If one can make the partial strike full-scale, it does not matter how much Elon Musk tries to circumvent the sympathy measures.

But to seriously mobilise people, you would have to show that you are prepared to fight for more than just the same old collective agreements, with working conditions that are already unsustainable. It would have to be the first step in a counter-offensive against capital: against the increasing pressure in the workplace and to immediately reverse the fall in real wages in recent years. 

Instead of not giving “a shit about Musk”, like Säikkälä, we should be talking about how it could lead to “a worldwide fight against Tesla”, as the president of the Transport workers union Tommy Wreeth has done. The potential is clearly there. That’s why Elon Musk is so doggedly determined to defeat the Swedish workers.

All of this would break with decades of class collaboration policy by the Swedish trade unions, but it is exactly what is needed. Class collaboration during the crisis of capitalism only means that workers give in to the demands of capitalists. This must be put to an end. 

  • Mobilise widely against Tesla's strikebreaking! Continue to expand the sympathy strikes! 
  • For a fighting labour movement!
  • Long live the strength of the working class – long live international solidarity! Together we can win!