Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

EV maker Tesla is facing a major labor action in Sweden


Tesla has long fended off efforts to unionize its workforce around the world. But in Sweden, the EV maker is facing its first-ever labor action. And Swedish workers of all stripes are banding together to boycott Tesla. These actions could have ripple effects for the company globally. Danielle Kaye reports from Sweden.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: (Speaking Swedish).

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: (Speaking Swedish).

DANIELLE KAYE, BYLINE: At the Malmo port in southern Sweden, cargo ships tower over a group of dock workers in neon-yellow union jackets. They're surrounded by rows of cars - Volkswagens, Volvos, Mercedes. But notably missing are Teslas.

ANDERS GUSTAFSSON: This is an ordinary port for Tesla to come. And they used to come here one, two, three times a week. So - but right now there is no Teslas.

KAYE: Anders Gustafsson is with the Transport Workers' Union. Dock workers in this union are refusing to unload any Teslas at Sweden's four major ports. This Friday, they're expanding their blockade to the entire country.

GUSTAFSSON: And when the ship is sailing away, the Tesla is going in that boat, not here.

KAYE: Why? Because Tesla, led by staunchly anti-union Elon Musk, is refusing to sign a collective bargaining agreement for its Swedish mechanics.

UNIDENTIFIED TESLA MECHANIC: I replace windshields. I replace parts. I repair whatever is necessary. I do...

KAYE: That's the voice of a Tesla mechanic in Gothenburg who asked to be anonymous. He's worried about retaliation by the company.

UNIDENTIFIED TESLA MECHANIC: We are on strike now because we want a safe and we want a solid employment.

KAYE: He says a collective bargaining agreement would provide a financial safety net for workers. He's one of roughly 120 Tesla workers who'd benefit. Thousands more Swedish workers - dock workers, electricians, cleaners - are boycotting Tesla in solidarity. Anti-union tactics have a different effect in Sweden, where, unlike in the U.S., trade unions are part of the fabric of the economy. About 90% of workers here are covered by collective bargaining agreements, which standardize pay rates, insurance and pensions in each sector.

JESPER PETTERSSON: This is the way we regulate working conditions in Sweden and has been for a long, long time.

KAYE: Jesper Pettersson is the spokesperson for the Metal Workers' Union, which launched the Tesla strike.

PETTERSSON: It has been very beneficial for both parties, both for employers and for employees.

KAYE: The unions do have an uphill battle on their hands. Sweden is a relatively small market for Tesla - its fifth biggest in Europe. And Tesla doesn't manufacture any cars here. It could decide to leave the country altogether. But German Bender, a labor market analyst in Stockholm, says that's unlikely, and he doubts the Swedish unions will give up on their fight anytime soon.

GERMAN BENDER: If the Tesla workers in Sweden would manage to sign the first collective agreement ever with Tesla, I think that could have a symbolic importance in other markets.

KAYE: Tesla didn't respond to requests for comment.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: (Speaking Swedish).

KAYE: Back at the port in southern Sweden, Gustafsson of the Transport Workers' Union says the strike is, at its core, a domestic issue. It's about a foreign company at odds with Sweden's labor norms and values. But he says unions in other countries are paying attention.

GUSTAFSSON: We get solidarity message from the whole world, from United States, from Canada.

KAYE: The strike comes as unions in bigger markets are also challenging Tesla. Musk is facing a union drive at a factory in Germany. In the U.S., the American carmaker has so far prevented all attempts to unionize its workforce, but the United Auto Workers union has set its sights on Tesla after negotiating major deals with the Detroit Three automakers.

GUSTAFSSON: We hope that the Tesla workers all around the world actually take that fight. Somebody need to be first.

KAYE: Tesla is still holding its ground, but Swedish workers are ramping up pressure on the company.

For NPR News, I'm Danielle Kaye in Malmo, Sweden.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Danielle Kaye
Danielle Kaye (she/her) is a 2022-2023 Kroc Fellow. Before joining NPR, Kaye worked as a business reporter at Reuters, where she covered compensation policies and union organizing at technology and retail companies. She graduated from UC Berkeley in 2021 with degrees in Global Studies and French. While studying in Berkeley, Kaye reported and produced for listener-funded radio station KPFA, covering protests and housing issues in California for KPFA's morning public affairs show. She was also a researcher at UC Berkeley's Human Rights Investigations Lab and a news reporter and editor at the student-run newspaper The Daily Californian. Kaye lived with a host family in Dakar, Senegal, in 2019, which inspired her to write her senior thesis about threats to Senegal's artisanal fishing communities.