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Swedish dockworkers are refusing to unload Teslas at ports in broad boycott move

Goran Larsson, a cargo ship inspector, poses next to the Transport Workers' Union flag at the Malmo port on Nov. 7. Dockworkers are refusing to load or unload Teslas at this port and all others across the country.
Danielle Kaye
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Freelance
Goran Larsson, a cargo ship inspector, poses next to the Transport Workers' Union flag at the Malmo port on Nov. 7. Dockworkers are refusing to load or unload Teslas at this port and all others across the country.

At the Malmo port in southern Sweden, a cargo ship looms over row after row of shiny new cars — Volkswagens, Volvos, Mercedes.

Notably missing are Teslas. That's because dockworkers are refusing to unload them.

Goran Larsson, a cargo ship inspector, said he's informing the crew on each arriving vessel of the labor action and assessing whether any Teslas are on board.

"We want there to be good regulation in Sweden — law and order all around the workplaces," Larsson said. "And this is the first step that we will do."

Tesla has long fended off efforts to unionize its workforce around the world. But in Sweden, the electric vehicle maker is facing its first formal labor action over its anti-union stance, with potential ripple effects for the company globally.

The Swedish metal and industrial workers union, IF Metall, which represents Tesla's roughly 120 workers, launched a walkout at the company in late October.

And now, Swedish workers of all stripes – dockworkers, electricians, cleaners and others – are banding together to boycott the U.S. company in solidarity.

The strike is a response to the company's refusal to sign a collective bargaining agreement for its employees, almost all of them mechanics, because Tesla doesn't have a manufacturing plant in Sweden.

Even postal workers will stop delivering mail to Tesla

About 90% of the entire Swedish workforce belong to trade unions and they are covered by contracts with their employers, which standardize pay rates, insurance and pensions, among other work conditions, in each sector.

"This is the way we regulate working conditions in Sweden and has been for a long, long time," said IF Metall spokesperson Jesper Pettersson. "It has been very beneficial for both parties – both for employers and for employees."

The Swedish labor movement is rallying behind the relatively small group of Tesla mechanics, who repair Tesla vehicles at service centers.

Thousands of workers are refusing to touch any Teslas until the company signs a contract. And the boycott keeps expanding. Postal workers have said they will stop delivering mail addressed to the company if there's no deal by Nov. 20.

Trade unions are part of the fabric of the Swedish economy

They see the American EV maker's efforts to circumvent collective bargaining as an affront to the entire Swedish labor system, where trade unions are part of the fabric of the economy.

Dockworkers represented by Sweden's transport workers' union have been blocking all imports of Teslas at Sweden's four main ports since last week. And this Friday, they're set to expand their blockade to the entire country.

Tommy Wreeth, chairman of the transport workers' union, said the Swedish labor system is based on collective bargaining agreements, which Tesla, led by the staunchly anti-union Elon Musk, is reluctant to embrace.

"It's very important to protect our model – it's a fight for the model, not just for the Tesla workers," Wreeth said, referring to his union's solidarity boycott.

Tesla did not respond to NPR's requests for comment. A Tesla representative told Sweden's TT News Agency that the company is choosing not to enter into a collective agreement.

"We already offer equivalent or better agreements than those covered by collective bargaining and find no reason to sign any other agreement," Tesla told TT.

A Tesla mechanic in Gothenburg, who requested anonymity due to concern about retaliation by the company, said he thinks a union agreement would provide a financial safety net that "allows us as employees to be able to have security."

"Symbolically important" fight

Despite the broad nature of the protests lodged by the unions, they have an uphill battle on their hands. Sweden is a relatively small market for Tesla – its fifth biggest in Europe this year. And Tesla doesn't manufacture any cars in the Nordic country, meaning it could theoretically decide to leave the country altogether.

But German Bender, a labor market analyst at Stockholm think tank Arena Idé, said it's unlikely Tesla will leave Sweden. And he doubts the Swedish unions will give up anytime soon – their fight, he said, is "too symbolically important" to abandon.

"And it becomes more symbolically important the longer the strike goes on," Bender said.

Europe's one Tesla factory in Germany also has a union drive

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 the labor action comes as unions in bigger markets are also challenging Tesla. Musk is facing, for instance, a union drive at its factory in Germany.

It is Tesla's only factory in Europe: the Berlin-Brandenburg Gigafactory, one of six such plants worldwide.

In the United States, the Texas-based automaker has so far thwarted 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.

"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," Bender said.

Atle Hoie, general secretary of IndustriALL Global Union which represents industrial workers around the world, said large-scale strikes like this one are rare in Sweden. He said the solidarity from Swedish unions across sectors, including from dockworkers, is a "big blow to Tesla" both within and beyond the Nordic country, sending the message that Tesla "is not immune to organizing."

Anders Gustafsson, a former dockworker who now works for the Swedish transport workers' union, said his union has received messages of support from unions in other countries, including in the U.S. and Canada.

"We hope that Tesla workers all around the world actually take that fight," Gustafsson said. "Somebody needs to be first."

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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.
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