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The Tesla strike is a battle we cannot lose

Sometimes strikes appear where very fundamental principles are at stake. The Tesla strike in Sweden is one such strike. In our neighboring country Sweden, 130 Tesla workers have been on strike since the end of October. Their trade union, IF Metall, organizes around 300,000 workers, and has a fighting fund that can last for 500 years. However, their opponent also has the resources to hold out for a long time: They are fighting one of the world's richest men, the far-right multi-billionaire and union-buster Elon Musk, who has given a stern message to his Swedish subsidiary not to enter into a collective agreement.

Guest blog by Jonas Bals, advisor in the Norwegian Confederation of Trade Unions (LO)

Photo: IF Metall strike guard at Tesla

The leader of the Swedish metal workers, Veli-Pekka Säikkälä, seems to have tried to avoid the strike becoming a conflict with Musk personally. He probably did so based on knowledge of how megalomaniacal narcissists behave: Men like Musk are difficult to turn around if the turnaround can be seen as a loss of prestige.

Now, however, that train seems to have left. Musk has fully signed up to the conflict, including through the media platform Twitter/X, which he gained ownership of last year. There he calls the Swedish trade unions' behavior "madness".

Musk is known for his aggressive opposition to unions. Tesla recently lost a lawsuit in the US against a worker who had been illegally fired for organizing, and the National Labor Relations Board has repeatedly pointed out how the company has investigated, harassed, disciplined and discriminated against employees who join a union. Earlier this year, the company laid off 30 employees in Buffalo, after they had tried to organize their colleagues.

Tesla behaves in the same way everywhere in the world - including here in Norway.

"Every time I visit Tesla's workshops, we are kicked out the second they hear I am from the trade union," a trade unionist said to the magazine «Fri Fagbevegelse».

Another local trade union leader said that they have a separate Excel sheet for the Tesla members, who are afraid that the employer will find out that they are LO members.

Oligarchs like Elon Musk and Amazon owner Jeff Bezos spend almost as much money on union busting as they do on funding private spaceflight. Every year, American employers spend staggering sums on measures to prevent employees from having a say in the workplace.

This working life model stands in stark contrast to the Nordic working life model, which has been fought for through 150 years of organisation.

We live in a time where the Nordic model is not only challenged by men like Elon Musk, but also by far-right and arch-liberal politicians – in Finland and Sweden, among others.

That is why the Tesla strike is like a historic crossroads: the outcome of this battle will decide many other questions for years to come. It is a battle of destiny.

Many strikes are about small improvements and gradual reforms.

In between, however, strikes of a different type appear, where important and completely fundamental principles are at stake. The strike in Sweden is one such strike.

Both parties know that much is at stake.

For the Swedish trade union movement, the strike is about the fundamental right to be organised, to be able to negotiate collectively about wages, and about the workers' right to influence and shape their own workplace.

For Musk, a concession to the trade union movement will be the first he has ever made, in a situation where the trade union movement is on the offensive in several countries, even in the United States.

When the American auto workers recently ended their strike against the biggest auto giants, Tesla stood back untouched, with far lower wages and still chemically free of unions. But the head of the United Auto Workers union, Shawn Fain, said when the strike ended that they would spend the coming years rebuilding the labor movement. They must do this "by organizing as we have never organized before", including in companies such as Tesla. Fain also called on other unions to join the UAW in a coordinated crackdown on what he called the "billionaire class," with a long-term goal of marking May 1, 2028 "in the spirit of the Haymarket uprising."

The means of warfare used by the parties also make the conflict fundamental.

The trade union movement has supported the strikers through sympathy strikes and blockades against Tesla: The dock workers refuse to unload and load Tesla cars, the cleaners refuse to wash the car manufacturer's "showrooms", the postmen have stopped delivering letters, parts and registration plates, and electricians, painters and others construction workers have stopped carrying out maintenance, including at the company's charging stations and workshops. In Norway, too, the union Fellesforbundet has announced that they will stop trying to circumvent the Swedish sympathy actions.

On the other side, we have Tesla, which brings in strikebreakers as the employers used to do during the "great fighting years" in Scandinavian history. In the dramatic interwar period, the trade union movement not only fought for basic agreements and a respect for the right to organize, but it also took up - and won by a long way - the fight against fascism.

At that time, the trade union movement was tried to be muzzled through coercive laws, met with force of arms and organized strike-breaking - in order to finally force a compromise with the employers. It is this compromise that the Finnish Petteri Orpo government is now attacking, with drastic interventions in the right to strike as one of the measures. The Finnish proposals are also echoing in Sweden, where several business leaders are now advocating for limiting the right to strike, and not least the right to declare sympathy strikes.

The word "sympathy strike" is one of the most beautiful words we have in our language.

Sympathy strikes and blockades have been used in countless labor disputes throughout history, in cases where the employers have refused to accommodate the workers’ wish for a collective agreement, co-determination and bargaining rights.

Groups with low bargaining power, in industries where the degree of organization is low and the penetration of people is high, are completely dependent on such a form of solidarity. That is why the sympathy strikes also arouse reactions. In a debate article in the Swedish newspaper «Svenska Dagbladet», the managing director of the market liberal think tank Timbro, Benjamin Dousa, claimed that trade union power is harmful to Sweden. In his view, the sympathy actions are an assault on a defenseless man - who happens to be the world's richest, and thus also one of the most powerful.

Gunther Mårder, CEO of the employers’ association Företagarna, wrote that the trade unions use "mafia-like means".

That trade union power ensures a balance of power, in what is otherwise an extremely asymmetric power relationship, is completely invisible in the world of Timbros and Företagarnas. They neither see the accumulation of power Musk possesses with his enormous wealth, nor how he and other oligarchs convert this economic capital into political influence. They also completely ignore that Musk controls one of the world's most important democratic debate platforms, the media platform Twitter/X.

In recent years, Twitter/X has become an important part of our common democratic public. After Musk's acquisition of the platform, it has also become a powerful weapon for the extreme right. Since buying Twitter, Musk has used the company as a weapon in the fight against what he calls the "woke virus" and to spread racist and anti-Semitic muck, disinformation and far-right conspiracy theories.

According to the Anti-Defamation League, anti-Semitic content increased by 61 percent in the first two weeks after Musk took control. There was also a strong growth in posts with hateful content against blacks and against gay men. Musk also invited back Donald Trump, who had been kicked out after the coup attempt on January 6, 2021, and Kanye West, who had been kicked out for anti-semitism.

The White House has recently condemned what it calls Musk's "abhorrent promotion" of anti-semitism. In recent days, Musk has sought to repair some of the damage he has done to his own company by visiting Benjamin Netanyahu in Israel, promising him and his far-right government members support in the war in Gaza.

It is an unholy alliance that can be interpreted in many ways - but it is also a reminder of the main conflict of our time, between oligarchic power in the hands of a small few, and democracy and co-determination for all.

The trade union's fight against Musk should not only be seen as a fight between labor and capital, but also as part of our time's fight between tyranny and rule by the people, between democracy and dictatorship. Musk and his allies want a working life where people like him alone decide - and they embrace politicians who want the same absolute power in society.

The trade union movement's goal is, and has been since its early beginnings, something completely different: A society where everyone should have a say in the team, and where ordinary people also have something to say. A working life and a society with balance of power and freedom. A society where power is not right, and where democracy is not the best form of government that money can buy - but a social democracy, where both power and wealth are shared fairly.

Achieving this requires struggle; fight against the oligarchs and wannabe dictators of our time. The fight takes place both in the workplace and in the streets. And our Swedish sisters and brothers are fighting that battle now. They deserve our full and active support.

Published in the Norwegian magazine "Fri fagbevegelse". Translated by Espen Løken.


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