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Elon Musk’s Swedish Problem

Above photo: Elon Musk,Ludovic Marin/Pool via Reuters.

Has The Anti-Union Billionaire Finally Met His Match?

For the first time in his life, the man who opposes any “lords and peasants sort of thing” may be learning a lesson in labor solidarity.

I disagree with the idea of unions… I just don’t like anything which creates a lords and peasants sort of thing.     — Elon Musk, November 30, 2023

Unfortunately for Elon Musk, the lord and master of the Tesla electric automobile company, the Swedish peasants have grabbed their pitchforks. One hundred twenty Tesla mechanics in seven service centers are demanding a collective agreement with the company, one that aligns with all other labor-management agreements in this heavily unionized country. Approximately 90% of the Swedish workforce falls under such agreements.

Musk isn’t having any of it. How dare a union tell him what he can and cannot do with his workers! For the first time in his life, however, he may be learning a lesson in labor solidarity. The 120 peasant-mechanics are not alone.

The Nordic countries are extremely proud of their labor-management system. Strikes are very rare as agreements are formed, sector by sector, to find equitable ways to share the bounty they’ve produced. After decades of mediating the workplace using this system, Nordic workers—and most managers as well—believe it is the backbone of their countries’ high standards of living.

Nordic labor unions are understandably highly protective of their collective labor-management system. They want every employer to participate in it, including Tesla, which has a small but robust Nordic market because the region fully embraces electric vehicles. To protect what they have achieved, unions are more than willing to engage in sympathy strikes and boycotts to force recalcitrant employers to accept the system.

Their strength depends on a simple but powerful working-class idea—solidarity: an injury to one is an injury to all. As a result, these 120 mechanics have gained an enormous amount of support.

  • Garbage is piling up in front of Tesla offices because the sanitation workers won’t pick it up.
  • Janitorial workers won’t clean the Tesla showrooms either.
  • The postal workers won’t deliver license plates for Tesla cars. When Tesla appealed to the courts to allow delivery, or for Tesla to pick them up themselves, the courts ruled in favor of the boycott.
  • The dockworkers won’t unload Musk’s cars in Sweden. Danish dockworkers also are blocking Tesla shipments heading to Sweden.
  • If the strike is not settled by December 20th, Norway’s largest private sector union said it would block the transit of Tesla cars to Sweden.
  • A large Danish pension fund, Pension Denmark, has divested its Tesla stocks and other Nordic pension funds are applying pressure as well.

To be sure, the richest man in the world, will not be easily cowed. Musk certainly has the resources to hold out and test the union’s resolve. As witnessed with Twitter, he’s even willing to harm his own enterprises to put his personal stamp on them. (It was Musk’s idea to push the risky autopilot system on Tesla cars, and to mislead buyers about its abilities. Two million cars are now being recalled.)

If Musk doesn’t settle the strike soon, his worries could quickly grow, especially if the heady spirit of solidarity spreads southward to Germany and the 11,000 Tesla workers at the company’s Berlin Gigafactory. To head off an organizing effort by IG Metall, the largest union in Germany, Musk announced a four percent raise in November for German Tesla workers, along with a bonus to make up for inflation. Nevertheless, union organizers claim workers are signing up in droves. It’s unclear how long Musk can keep the union at bay.

Can Solidarity Spread To The United States?

Musk’s biggest worry is not the 120 Swedish mechanics. It’s the organizing efforts of the United Automobile Workers union (UAW) in the U.S. that poses the biggest threat. Buoyed by its enormous victories over the Big Three US automakers (GM, Ford and Stellantis), the UAW, led by Shawn Fain, has Tesla in its sights. As Fain colorfully put it:

“It’s gonna come down to the people that work for him deciding if they want their fair share… or if they want him to fly himself to outer space at their expense.”

Tesla is using the usual toolbox of anti-union techniques to keep the UAW out, many of which the National Labor Relations Board has ruled are illegal. But that battle is just beginning, and Musk is no doubt thinking that he can’t afford to show weakness by caving in to a handful of workers in Sweden. Weakness abroad might further embolden workers here to join up with the UAW.

Will The International Longshore And Warehouse Union (ILWU) Join With The Nordic Unions?

Musk also should be worrying about what the ILWU could do to his cars. It’s possible that this militant labor union will soon refuse to handle any and all Teslas in a show of support for the Swedish mechanics.

While labor law in the United States makes sympathy strikes much more difficult than in Scandinavia, conducting them here is not impossible. The ILWU, which represents 22,000 dockworkers on the West Coast, has a long history of striking on behalf of others. On May Day 2008, the union launched a one-day strike at 29 ports to protest the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. In 2010, 2014 and 2021 it refused to handle cargo on Israeli ships in honor of community protests against Israel’s repression of the Palestinians. It shut down the ports for eight minutes and 46 seconds in 2020 to show solidarity with George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and other victims of police violence. And when apartheid ruled in South Africa, it conducted numerous job actions intended to punish the institutional practice of discrimination.

The ILWU has yet to say whether they will join in the Scandinavian struggle. But if these dockworkers do, it will be precisely because solidarity has always been the essence of union power. Standing together is the only way labor organizations can successfully challenge corporate power. Unfortunately, only six percent of workers in the U.S. business sector belong to unions, down from nearly 35 percent in the mid-1950s, and a far cry from the 90 percent covered by union agreements in Sweden.

Nevertheless, in the U.S., positive perceptions of unions are rapidly rising as a new generation of workers take on companies like Amazon and Starbucks. After hitting their lowest approval rating in 2010 (48 percent according to Gallop) union approval climbed to 71 percent in 2021, the highest since the 1960s.

Musk, of course, could care less about union approval ratings. Like every other multi-billionaire, he believes he knows best about nearly everything, or how else could he have become so rich? To Musk it’s a violation of natural law, as defined by him, to concede any power to labor unions. He created Tesla and, therefore, he gets to run it. The unions be damned.

But if union solidarity holds in Scandinavia, Musk will have no choice but to accept the Nordic model, at least in those countries (or scuttle his market as he seems to be doing with Twitter in Europe.) Whether the power of solidarity spreads elsewhere will depend on the courage of unions like the ILWU and the UAW.

In this era of rising autocratic power, wouldn’t it auger a good New Year if the 120 Swedish mechanics bested Musk?

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