Tesla technicians who quit their jobs in Sweden say they still support the US company’s mission and its top CEO. But they also want Tesla to embrace the Swedish way of doing business.
They call it the Swedish Model, a way of life that has defined the country’s economy for decades. At its heart is the partnership between employers and employees to ensure that both sides benefit from a company’s profits.
Instead, four technicians who walked off the job on Oct. 27 said they have been subjected to what they described as the “typical U.S. model”: six-day work weeks, inevitable overtime and an unclear evaluation system for promotion.
“Just work, work, work,” said Janis Kuzma, one of the striking technicians.
The union that represents Tesla workers, IF Metall, won’t say how many of the company’s 130 technicians have left — it could be only a few dozen. The company’s 10 service centers remain open.
But as the strike moves into its third month, it is having a huge impact on the Nordic region. At least 15 other unions have taken action to try to force Tesla to negotiate a collective labor agreement to set wages and benefits that reflect industry-wide standards in Sweden. Daniel Ives, an analyst at Wedbush Securities, warned that the dispute is becoming “a major lightning rod issue around unions worldwide” for Tesla and its CEO, Elon Musk.
Polls show a majority of Swedes support the strike, which is widely seen as a defense of the country’s consensus-based way of doing business. Nine out of 10 people in Sweden work under a contract and strikes are relatively rare. But as the strike continues, questions are being raised about whether Sweden’s reliance on labor-management agreements is denying businesses flexibility and flexibility.
That divide can be seen in the reactions of some of the country’s roughly 50,000 Tesla owners, who see the withdrawal as a power play by a wealthy, politically influential association.
Mr. Musk pushed back against efforts by his 127,000 employees worldwide to unionize.
The company has declined repeated requests for comment. At a service center in Malmö this month, workers wearing Tesla shirts were busy moving cars in and out. Strikers on the picket line said some of those working appeared to be recent hires.
There is talk that some Tesla owners couldn’t find anyone to change their winter tires – essential for driving in Sweden at this time of year.
But fearing that the strike was more than an inconvenience to Tesla, IF Metall sought support from other unions.
Unions in Denmark, Norway and Finland, as well as Sweden, have rallied around IF Metall. That means dock workers have stopped unloading Teslas arriving by ship. Union members at independent repair shops have stopped servicing Teslas. Postal workers have stopped delivering Tesla mail, including license plates; and electricians have pledged to no longer repair Tesla charging stations.
It may be too early to tell how much these measures are hurting the company. So far, new vehicle sales numbers don’t show that the strike is denting sales — Tesla’s Model Y is set to become the most popular vehicle in Sweden for 2023, with more than 14,000 cars sold through October, according to official statistical data.
The company also appears to have found a loophole to overcome the exclusion of postal workers by ordering license plates directly from customers.
But some prospective buyers worry that despite Tesla’s commitment to routine operations, they won’t get their cars in the promised five to eight weeks.
“I don’t want to commit yet,” said John Khademi, a Tesla owner who decided to hold off on ordering a new one. “I’ll wait and see how it goes.”
Solidarity strikes have proven divisive. Some companies without a direct stake in the exit, such as independent auto repair shops, have lost business because they have entered into collective bargaining agreements with IF Metall that require them to divest Tesla-related businesses. According to Swedish law, if a union calls a solidarity strike, its members must follow it.
“These companies then lose a lot of money and are really disappointed,” said Mattias Dahl, deputy vice-president of the Confederation of Swedish Enterprise, which represents 60,000 companies.
Some believe that these acts of solidarity have gone too far. “There is no equality here anymore,” said Prime Minister Nilsson, chief executive of Timbro, a Swedish think tank that promotes libertarian ideals and the free market.
He pointed to Spotify, the streaming audio giant founded in Stockholm in 2006, as another company operating in Sweden without a collective agreement. Like Tesla, it comes from a start-up culture.
“Companies in the Swedish labor market should be allowed to exist without a collective agreement,” said Mr Nilsson.
Neither side has indicated they are willing to back down. IF Metall, which represents workers in other heavy industries, has built up its war chest for decades. It offers the strikers 130 percent of their wages.
Tesla also has deep pockets — the company is valued at about $817 billion — and says it offers wages and benefits that are equivalent to or better than those in a collective agreement, including offering stock options as a lucrative incentive.
Tesla has shown its willingness to fight by suing both the Swedish agency responsible for car registrations and the postal company after its license plates were seized. The lawsuits, filed in November, are ongoing.
Collective bargaining, not the law, governs working conditions in Sweden. The country has no statutory minimum wage.
Strikes are unusual because once a labor agreement is in effect, the union cannot call it off. This guarantee of peace has helped to keep the number of strike days in Sweden to one of the lowest levels in Europe — just over two working days a year lost to strikes and lockouts per 1,000 workers from 2010 to 2019, compared with 55 in Norway and 128 in France, according to one study.
Marie Nilsson has been a member of IF Metall for more than 40 years and took over as its leader in 2017. She remembers joining the picket line in 1995 to support workers striking against Toys “R” Us, the last major company of USA that rejected a collective agreement. But the action against Tesla is the first time it has gone on strike.
“It is the workers who form the union,” he said. “He’s not an outsider.”
He pushed back against Tesla’s argument that it provides terms that are equal to or better than what workers would get under a collective agreement. “That never happens,” Ms Nilsson said.
Four engineers who described the reasons for the strike said they admired Mr. Musk. One raved about how the extended battery in the new Cybertruck would change the game, and Mr. Kuzma drives a Model Y. But everyone agreed that, despite Mr. Musk’s genius in revolutionizing electric vehicles, he was choosing to fight a country that prizes consensus and that it would be a mistake to confuse the Swedish model with the United Automobile Workers, the American union that took a hard line against Detroit’s big three automakers in a recent strike.
“If Metall isn’t the UAW,” said one technician, who declined to be named because he said he hoped to return to his job at Tesla after the strike and feared repercussions for speaking out. “You have to know how different unions work in different countries.”
The strike is regularly covered by the Swedish media and has appeared on TV debates. Debates have become polarized, pitting Tesla fans and owners against the union and its members.
Some Tesla owners describe the strike as publicity and evidence of union overreach. They point to the dozens of technicians who remain on the job, including some who have not joined the union, as a sign that they are happy with their jobs.
“If working conditions are that bad, everyone would have quit,” said Ulf Siklosi, who drives a Tesla Model S. “Otherwise, everyone would be unionized.”
Daniel Schlaug, a fellow Model S owner and investor in Tesla, said the company had sent letters telling owners that 90 percent of Tesla workers were still working, a number that could not be confirmed.
Mr. Kuzma and several colleagues said they were disappointed by the criticism of Tesla’s owners. “They don’t understand it’s about them,” he said. “If the pressure on workers is too much, they’re not going to do a good job fixing their cars.”
Last week, institutional investors from Sweden’s Nordic neighbors – who together manage $1 trillion in assets – sent a letter to Tesla’s board saying they were “deeply concerned” about Tesla’s attitude towards workers’ rights in Sweden and asking a meeting early next year.
Ms Nilsson would also like to speak with Mr Musk. Asked what she would say if he called her, she replied: “I would love to.”
“I would say, ‘Let me explain and let me hear your expectations,'” he said. “Let’s talk about it.”
Christina Anderson contributed to the report.