Tesla Service goes on strike in Sweden; dockworkers refuse to unload cars

Tesla Service workers have gone on strike across Sweden due to Tesla’s refusal to sign a collective bargaining agreement. In response, Swedish dockworkers have stated that they will refuse to unload Tesla vehicles in Swedish ports unless the conflict is resolved quickly.

Tesla does not have any manufacturing presence in Sweden, but it does have a significant sales presence.

Electric cars are incredibly popular in Sweden – not as much as in neighboring Norway, but pretty close, with about a 60% market share for plug-in cars in Sweden.

And, like in most other markets, the Tesla Model Y is the best-selling car there. (Tesla’s other models are far behind in sales.) Tesla has sold around 14,000 Model Ys in Sweden so far this year, about 6% of the total car market with just this one model.

So there are quite a few Teslas out and about, and those Teslas need someone to service them.

The problem is those service workers haven’t felt too appreciated by their employer. They say that working conditions are worse at Tesla than they are for other auto mechanics and want Tesla to sign a collective bargaining agreement to ensure that conditions are brought in line with the rest of the industry.

Collective bargaining agreements are incredibly common in Northern European countries. Union membership is high on its own – with about two-thirds of employees in Sweden belonging to a union. But many nonunion employees are still covered by collective bargaining agreements that are often negotiated industrywide. In terms of collective bargaining coverage, some 90% of workers across the Swedish economy find themselves protected by some sort of agreement. The country doesn’t even need a legally mandated minimum wage, since that is covered by collective bargaining agreements.

So, if anything, it’s a bit of a surprise that Tesla has gone this far without an agreement. Tesla famously opposes unionization, but as it has moved out of the American market (with its tiny ~10% union membership rate) and into international markets where collective bargaining is considered a matter of course, there were always bound to be conflicts.

One of those conflicts is happening now, with Swedish Tesla workers declaring a strike Friday, after posting notice last week of their intent to do so. Tesla did not come to the table in response to the notice, and thus workers have gone forward with the strike.

The strike includes around 130 workers in seven locations (Tesla operates 9 service centers in 7 cities in Sweden – we’re not sure, via translation, if the strike covers seven service centers or all seven cities). Not everyone who works at these locations is unionized, and because of European data privacy rules, neither the union nor the workers need to specify exactly which workers are part of the union.

It is being led by IF Metall, a major union covering hundreds of thousands of industrial workers across Sweden. The union says that it will remain on strike until a collective bargaining is in place and that it has plenty of funds to sustain the strike for months if need be.

It remains to be seen what the effects of the strike on Tesla’s operations will be. This will make servicing a car much harder in Sweden, but Tesla has committed to hiring strikebreakers (also known as “scabs”) so that operations can continue smoothly.

Scabs are a common feature of strikes in America, but they’re incredibly rare in Sweden. An IF Metall spokesperson said “that would be crossing all boundaries. That kind of thing happened in Sweden in the 1920s and 30s,” as reported by thelocal.se, an English-language Sweden news site.

There are other third-party auto shops that service Teslas and are not currently covered by the strike. But IF Metall says that it plans to expand the strike to 20 of these third party workshops starting November 3 if Tesla still does not come to the table. These shops would continue work as normal but stop working on Tesla cars specifically.

But that’s not the only way the strike might expand. This morning, the Swedish dockworkers union said that it would stop unloading Tesla cars from ships at four Swedish ports – Malmö, Södertälje, Gothenburg and Trelleborg – if the strike isn’t resolved. That action will start on November 7 if Tesla has still chosen not to come to the table with the union.

Electrek’s Take

We aren’t experts in the history of Swedish labor action, or Swedish labor law, but this seems like quite the misstep by Tesla. It sounds like few people think that Tesla will prevail here, and their refusal to come to the table smacks as either stubbornness, ignorance of Swedish culture, or simply a lack of focus (as some Tesla efforts are wont to fall victim to).

Strikes are generally rare in Sweden. The high levels of collective bargaining coverage and high levels of social welfare in the country, along with pay transparency and a strong social commitment to equality, mean that everyone across all industries is pretty much on the same page when it comes to worker treatment. And when collective bargaining coverage is so high, companies (minus a few of the less-internationally-aware American ones) generally recognize that workers are going to get their way if it comes to blows, so it’s best to just come to the table and negotiate in good faith to begin with.

While 130 workers may sound like a small amount across a whole country, this is not the first time a similar situation has happened in Sweden. In 1995, Toys ‘R’ Us entered Sweden and refused to sign a collective bargaining agreement, and about 80 retail workers decided to strike over it.

That strike spread to delivery workers, warehouses, banks, advertisers, even garbage collectors who all refused to do business with Toys ‘R’ Us, and word continued to spread to consumers and workers in Sweden and across Europe to avoid shopping there. While Toys ‘R’ Us had previously had a global policy not to sign collective bargaining agreements, they ended up relenting to this strike in Sweden. So it doesn’t sound like the right country to mess with in this respect.

As for a personal anecdote: I have some Swedish friends who came to visit me in America on vacation in their early 20s. One of them worked an entry-level job at a sporting goods store, and yet was able to afford a 6-week paid vacation to Hawaii, California and Florida, with no trouble or pushback from her job. They were still doing their best to not overspend on the trip, but getting 6 paid weeks off an entry level job to travel to expensive tourist destinations is the kind of thing that Americans just generally cannot even conceive of doing in this day and age, unless subsidized by their parents.

And yet, despite all the warnings we hear in America about how companies can’t possibly work with unions or they’ll go out of business, companies are still able to do business in Sweden, and the country still does well economically. After all, they’ve got enough money that ~6% of new car sales are Teslas, and that’s higher than the US average even.

So maybe high collective bargaining coverage, even for retail employees, isn’t all that bad of a thing.

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