Swedish Dockworkers Threaten to Block Teslas as Union Action Widens

More than a week after Tesla mechanics in Sweden began a strike to compel the U.S. automaker to accept a collective labor agreement, union officials said Tesla representatives would meet with the union on Monday.

Tesla did not respond to a request for comment.

Tesla doesn’t make cars in Sweden, and the country is a relatively small market for the automaker. But the job action by dozens of mechanics is beginning to reverberate. Dockworkers at the country’s four largest ports said they would stop unloading shiploads of Teslas on Tuesday in support of the strikers.

The trade union IF Metall has for years called on the automaker to enter into talks about adopting a collective agreement that would set the basis for wages and benefits for the roughly 120 mechanics who are employed by Tesla to work at its service facilities in Sweden. About 90 percent of all workers in Sweden are covered by such agreements.

Since the union called the strike on Oct. 27, dozens of the mechanics who are union members have been staying home, disrupting service appointments for some Tesla drivers. Not all of the union members have taken part, said Jesper Pettersson, a spokesman for IF Metall, acknowledging reports that some service facilities appeared largely unaffected.

“It is not an easy thing to be on strike,” he added.

But the action, combined with the threat of other unions getting involved, appeared to be enough to force Tesla to the bargaining table. A meeting between the union and company representatives was scheduled for Monday, Mr. Petterson said.

Despite its relatively small size, Sweden has the world’s third-highest share of electric vehicle sales, at 32 percent, after Norway and Iceland, according to the World Resources Institute, a research organization. Tesla enjoys a growing fan base and its Model Y, a sport-utility vehicle manufactured in Germany, has been the top-selling electric vehicle in Sweden this year.

Tesla’s owner, Elon Musk, has for years resisted efforts to unionize Tesla workers, and in 2018 threatened the compensation of U.S. employees seeking to join a union, (a statement later found to violate labor laws).

German Bender, a labor market analyst at Arena, a think tank in Stockholm, said Tesla may “see this small conflict in Sweden as posing a risk of contagion to other markets.”

In Germany, IG Metall, a union affiliated with Sweden’s IF Metall, has been seeking to organize Tesla’s factory in Grünheide, outside of Berlin.

And in the United States, on the heels of the significant gains in wage and benefits won by the United Automobile Workers after a six-week wave of walkouts at the three big Detroit automakers, union’s leaders have set their sights on Tesla’s U.S. workers as part of a wider push to organize nonunion factories across the United States.

The power of organized labor in Sweden is considerable. About 70 percent of the country’s work force belongs to a union, and Swedish law allows for solidarity strikes in support of other unions’ efforts.

That is what happened in 1995, when another well-known U.S. company started doing business in Sweden. Toys “R” Us was unwilling to accept a collective labor agreement, and its retail workers in Sweden went on strike. Although the company employed only 80 people in the country, other unions rallied to their cause, including postal, transport and municipal workers who disrupted mail delivery and trash removal. After three months, the company signed an agreement.

In support of IF Metall, the Swedish Transport Workers’ Union said that, starting at noon on Tuesday, dockworkers would not unload any more Tesla cars.

“When IF Metall asks for Transport’s support, it is both important and obvious that we help, to stand up for the collective agreement and the Swedish labor market model,” the transport workers’ union said.

IF Metall has not requested support from any other unions, pending the outcome of Monday’s talks, Mr. Pettersson said.

Sweden relies on collective agreements hammered out between employers and unions within each industrial sector, to set basic terms for employment.

Under the agreement that IF Metall is seeking, Tesla workers would gain a broader insurance package, guaranteed training to transition to a different job if theirs is cut and annual wage increases, the union said. Even workers who do not belong to a union are covered by collective agreements.

Foreign-based firms are not the only ones reluctant to support the country’s century-old model of collective bargaining agreements. Some homegrown enterprises, like Klarna, the buy-now-pay-later giant, and the streaming provider Spotify have pushed back against them, citing the need to remain flexible and nimble in the rapidly changing tech industry.

After six months of negotiations, two of the unions representing employees at Klarna had threatened to walk off their jobs next week. They were able to secure an agreement for Klarna to join an employers association late Friday, avoiding a strike, the company said.

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