Mechanics at Tesla's 10 workshops in Sweden have been on strike since 27 October: the first of its kind at the EV giant. The action was taken after the Swedish industrial union IF Metall told its members to down tools in response to the electric car giant refusing to sign a collective bargaining agreement in a move derided by CEO (and world’s richest man) Elon Musk as “insane”.
[Editor's note: Since this article was written, Danish trade union 3F Transport has begun a sympathy strike to stop Tesla circumventing the blockade of their products entering the country. Fellesforbundet, a Norwegian trade union, is discussing taking similar action. This is a bold and inspiring display of working class solidarity internationally, which communists should fully support.]
In fact, given the circumstances it would be madness not to take a stand. A collective agreement would provide the Tesla workers with guaranteed yearly wage increases, rather than relying on promises from the bosses. But the wage increase for this year as determined by the last bargaining period is actually a wage decrease, when adjusted for inflation.
Tesla is well known for its union busting and use of scab labour during conflicts. Despite being relatively small in Sweden, it’s obviously a giant internationally and will want to make an example of the workers in Sweden, to discourage similar action elsewhere.
At the moment, this is truly a David and Goliath struggle. Just 130 members are on strike, according to the union. This represents a fraction of mechanics working at Tesla workshops across the country. So far, the picket lines have been unable to stop strike breakers, which have been taken by taxi to the workshops, according to accounts from strike guards.
A trade union official for IF Metall explains the relatively low number of workers on strike by the fact that many of the workers are young and therefore not used to strikes. But you don't need to be particularly young to not have much experience with strikes in Sweden.
This is insane— Elon Musk (@elonmusk) November 23, 2023
Since 2010, only an average of 8,100 workdays a year have been lost due to strikes, compared to over 100,000 a year in the neighbouring countries (Finland, Norway and Denmark), who all have smaller workforces than Sweden.
This is not a result of wages or conditions in Sweden being better than neighbouring countries, but due to a policy of avoiding conflicts at all costs by the trade unions' leadership. Coupled with intimidation from the bosses, and relatively timid demands from the trade union leaders, the small numbers are not a surprise.
Nevertheless, other members of IF Metall, as well as other unions in the confederacy, have taken bold solidarity action to support the courageous stand by the Tesla mechanics.
As there are no factories producing Tesla cars in Sweden, normally they would arrive in the country by ship. But the Transport Workers’ Union and the Dock Workers’ Union have put a stop to this through a blockade on loading or unloading Tesla cars at all Swedish ports.
The around 50,000 cars already in Sweden will not be worked on by mechanics in non-Tesla workshops across the country. Painters of the Painters’ union will not give these cars paint jobs. Tesla's premises are also under multiple blockades. Cleaners will not clean them. Builders will not be doing construction or service work on Tesla workshops. And the Electricians’ Union has imposed a blockade on service or repair work on any of Tesla's workshops or Tesla's 213 charging stations in the country, saying "if something breaks, no one will fix it".
One of the most effective blockades have been on post and deliveries. The intention was to stop deliveries of spare parts and such from arriving at the workshops, but an unintended result is that registration plates for Tesla cars issued by the Transport Agency have not been delivered, stopping any new Tesla cars from rolling out on Swedish roads.
In response, Tesla sued the Transport Agency and PostNord, the Swedish postal monopoly. In a violation of the "Swedish model", where the state is supposed to stay out of conflicts, the courts ruled in favour of Tesla, showing clearly that the ultimate allegiance of the bourgeois state is to the capitalists.
Nevertheless the actions taken in solidarity with the Tesla workers shows the power of the united working class: without whom, not a lightbulb shines, not a wheel turns, and not a Tesla charges! The Swedish ruling class are looking worriedly at the situation, which they fear sets a dangerous precedent.
Ruling class concerned
For the bourgeoisie the concern is not so much whether Tesla signs a collective bargaining agreement or not. In fact they are not opposed to collective bargaining or the so-called "Swedish Model". On the contrary, they are quite happy with the loyal support of the trade union bureaucrats in keeping the class struggle within safe boundaries for many years.
In a recent article The Confederation of Swedish Enterprise “defends the Swedish labour market model." In a series of columns in Dagens Industri (DI), a mouthpiece of the Swedish ruling class, their position is made quite clear.
"Swedish trade unions are reasonable and have contributed to Sweden having very few strike days in international comparison."
Another article for DI states:
"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 participant in the workplace. IF Metall also has the right to go into conflict with Tesla."
What does concern them, however, are the actions taken in solidarity with the Tesla workers. In part due to the effects the actions might have on other workplaces with collective agreements, which according to those agreements should be safe from industrial action. But more importantly, they are worried about the use of sympathy measures in future, more important struggles, especially in the case that the current trade union leadership loses control over the situation.
In multiple columns, DI calls for restricting the right to solidarity measures.
Editor Tobias Wikström remarks: "It is remarkable that it is permissible to use industrial action to enforce collective agreements."In another article, he calls on the right-wing government to change the law to restrict such measures.
Elsewhere, the publication states: "Sympathy measures are a dangerous trade union strategy. It is high time that the Confederation of Swedish Enterprise lives up to its name and fights against the disproportionate ravages of the union."
It's no accident that the calls for restricting the right to strike are becoming louder. It was recently announced that Sweden has entered a recession. Following decades of austerity and attacks on the working class, the Swedish ruling class is preparing itself for further attacks and for intensification of the class struggles, in the form of more numerous and militant strikes.
The Swedish working class is in possession of a mighty power in their trade unions. And their coffers are filled to the brim. IF Metall alone has 15 billion SEK (over 1 billion pounds) in their strike fund. "The strike fund would last for about 500 years" the press officer at IF Metall said in regards to the ongoing strike.
But the strength of a weapon is of no importance if it’s directed by a coward looking for the first opportunity to desert. The bosses are happy to abandon the “Swedish model” and lean on the state for support against the workers.
To effectively fight back, workers need to rely on their own strength, ditch the class collaborators, and gear up for a serious struggle.