Elon Musk is trying to export Tesla’s anti-union model to Sweden, and workers across Scandinavia are launching solidarity actions to thwart him. We should be embracing the Nordic countries’ model of strong worker rights, not Tesla’s elitist union busting.

Elon Musk speaks at the Atreju political convention organized by Fratelli d’Italia on December 15, 2023, in Rome, Italy. (Antonio Masiello / Getty Images)

Just before Christmas, I paid a visit to the dockers at the industrial harbor of Esbjerg in southwestern Denmark. That day, Danish dockworkers began their solidarity conflict in support of the Swedish Tesla workers’ strike, refusing to unload the company’s vehicles from any Danish harbor. Starting that same day, Danish truck drivers also refused to transport Tesla’s cars and goods. Similar actions were taken by Finnish unions, and Norwegian unions are about to join in.

These kinds of cross-border solidarity actions have been seen before, for example during the Liverpool dockers’ strike during the 1990s, but they aren’t very common. It shows that a certain radicalism and internationalism is still a living part of the Nordic labor movement. But most of all it underscores that even though the Swedish strike only concerns a small number of Tesla employees, the Nordic unions view the Tesla conflict as a question of principle. They see it as a fundamental clash — between the Nordic labor model where almost all workers are covered by collective agreements (CBAs), and the anti-union stance of a new era of tech corporations like Tesla.

Unions Balance the Power of Capital

Elon Musk’s outspoken resistance to worker unionization has surely added fuel to the readiness for conflict among the Nordic unions. In a recent controversial interview, Musk stated that he “disagreed with the idea of unions” because they — in his opinion — create “negativity” and a sense of “lords and peasants.”

Such statements are utterly at odds with the general experience in the Nordics. Far from creating a relationship of lords and peasants, the high unionization and almost universal coverage of CBAs is balancing the power between employers and employees, reducing some of the coercive power of capital over workers — both in everyday working life and in the broader relation of class forces across society. It means standards including a thirty-seven-hour working week, five to six weeks of paid vacation, paid sick leave, and one year of paid parental leave for every child. It is probably also the main reason why workers in these countries have not experienced the same decoupling of wages from rises in GDP and productivity that workers have seen elsewhere.

Rights, Not Generous Bosses

Tesla’s main arguments, echoed by right-wing pundits and Musk fanboys in the Nordics, are that Tesla’s salaries match or are even better than the salaries offered by unionized companies. This might be the case, but we do not know, because — as uncovered by Swedish media — the Swedish Tesla workers have signed a contract that deprive them the right to tell anything about their contracts and working conditions.

But — even if this were true — it is not a forceful argument against unionization. First, being dependent of the voluntary goodwill of your employer does not give you the same security as a negotiated collective agreement in any way. Second, it is not surprising that a company in a country where most workers are covered by collective agreements has to offer a similar salary in order to attract employees. In other words, the nonunionized workers at Tesla also benefit from the broad spread of unionization — a benefit that would obviously disappear should union-busting companies like Tesla succeed in undermining the Nordic labor model. That is exactly why the Nordic unions are so eager to win the strike.

The good news is that the unions probably will end up victorious. At least that is what recent similar examples have shown. When the Irish airline Ryanair opened up routes out of Copenhagen Airport a decade ago, their controversial CEO, Michael O’Leary, preceded Musk in openly attacking the Nordic model and mocking the unions. Solidarity actions of all unions in the airport in the Danish capital made it impossible for Ryanair to operate and after losing a legal battle over the solidarity actions, an enraged O’Leary shut down the routes out of Copenhagen. This year, Ryanair returned after all and signed a collective agreement. In the ’80s, McDonalds also bowed to a prolonged battle for unionization, and the same happened for Toys”R”Us in Sweden.

Let’s Export the Nordic Labor Model

But now it’s Elon Musk who’s been shocked to the core after seeing the Nordic model at work. He is now calling the completely legal solidarity actions from other unions in Sweden “insane.” Musk might think so. However, these unions are playing by the Nordic labor model playbook, and their actions are effective. Elon Musk may be very powerful — but faced with the combined strength of organized labor in the Nordics, he will succumb in the end.

It shows us once more that practical international solidarity among unions and progressive forces is one of our most important tools in the struggle for decent working conditions for all workers — not least in a globalized economy. With Tesla heading for conflict in their German factory and the United Auto Workers (UAW) pushing for unionization in the United States, that solidarity will be crucial.

Musk wants to export his elitist labor model where workers are reduced to humble and grateful servants of the sometimes-generous oligarch. But on both sides of the Atlantic, we should work to make sure that the opposite happens. What needs exporting is the solidarity and strength of the Nordic labor model, so that Elon Musk not only has to give in to the Nordic unions — but also has to accept workers’ place in a union, in Tesla’s factories and workshops all over the world.

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