In March, an environmentalist arson attack near a German Tesla factory halted production — and prompted many workers to defend Tesla. It was further proof that actions bypassing organized labor are unlikely to appeal to those whose livelihoods are at stake.

Workers at the Tesla automobile plant in Gruenheide, Germany, after the electricity went out on March 13, 2024. (Krisztian Bocsi / Bloomberg via Getty Images)

In March, a tweet by Berlin and Brandenburg’s public broadcaster RBB about workers at the Tesla facility in Grünheide prompted ridicule among Germany’s online left. Some climate activists calling themselves “Volcano-Group Shut Down Tesla” had set fire to an electricity pylon near the plant, stopping production there for several days and leaving thousands of homes without power for many hours. In RBB’s words, the around one thousand Tesla workers who gathered at the factory gates were “protesting in solidarity with their employer.”

The responses were scathing. Several comments suggested that employees at Tesla “suffer from Stockholm syndrome,” or were “protesting in support of their own exploitation.” True, many of the accounts concerned were small and anonymous. Yet prominent left-wing voices received widespread praise for commenting on the gathering in similarly mocking tones — and claiming that the workers were siding with their boss.

It’s perhaps understandable that a choice of words like RBB’s induces eyerolls on the Left — especially when the boss in question happens to be Elon Musk. Likewise, the suspicion that this demonstration might have been spurred on by management, and that the views of the thousand people attending it might not be representative of the now more than ten thousand Tesla employees in Grünheide, does not come out of the blue.

Still, accusations of “lacking class consciousness” or of “submissiveness,” leveled against people worried about the future of their workplace (and after the recent arson attack, even their safety) are something else. Such an approach is not only extremely condescending, but also gets things back to front. It misapprehends the real motivations of working people and the question of how to win them over to a socialist project. Instead of ridiculing workers at the Tesla factory, a serious left should ask why such an identification with the company emerges — and what can be done about it.

Whose “Consciousness”?

Tesla’s “gigafactory” has long drawn criticism. Environmental organizations voice concerns about land and water use, and trade unionists amplify reports of bad working conditions, racism, and systematic union busting at the company’s US facilities. As the facility outside the German capital is set to expand, these protests are also gaining traction. Activists have occupied a piece of forest that is supposed to make way for the construction project, and there are increasingly severe clashes with the police. These protests are what the workers at Tesla are responding to.

Yet their reaction isn’t, as some people suggest, a case of “false consciousness.” Every workplace has some people who worship their boss — and given the cult of personality around Musk, there’s bound to be some of those people in Grünheide as well. That’s not the issue. The real point is that the workers’ reaction to the environmental protests is not an irrational adoption of their employer’s interests. Rather, they are painfully aware that they — as members of the working class — are dependent on selling their labor power to a capitalist in order to make a living.

Needing a job to survive is a deeply precarious situation to find yourself in. And people who have found a job will try to defend it if necessary — especially if it’s a comparatively good job in the auto industry, even one that’s below industry standards, like Tesla’s jobs are.

Workers don’t keep their heads down because they’re blind, as arm-chair radicals like to assume, but because the class structure puts obstacles in their way at every corner, which make resistance difficult and fraught with risk.

The local initiatives against the factory and its expansion justify their position primarily by pointing to concerns about water pollution, deforestation, and traffic noise. Regardless of how (un-)likely to succeed one deems those protests to be, their position toward the workers is clear: this factory, and with it also your jobs, shouldn’t exist. And the expansion that is supposed to secure its future, create more positions, the daycare facility the company promised, and the new train connection — you can forget all that, too!

In all honesty, do we really expect workers in Grünheide to develop sympathies for this kind of program?

On top of all that, there’s a growing fear of deindustrialization, which tends to play an even bigger role in promoting skepticism about climate and environmental protections than does the threat of simply losing one’s own job. After the experiences of economic collapse after German reunification in the 1990s, this fear is especially deep-seated in the former East. Job cuts and the fear of them have played a huge role in the retreat of the labor movement the world over. Many people are, therefore, deeply suspicious of any vision of the future that seems to reject industrial production and call for a reduction in levels of consumption — a fact that especially the academic part of the environmental movement continues to be obtuse about grasping.

If you look at the clips online where Tesla workers talk about the protests, you will notice very quickly that it’s exactly these things that they’re concerned about — jobs, the region’s economic development, and the contribution that their own work makes to the protection of the climate. For this reason especially, there is an air of bewilderment about the local protests. What there isn’t any sign of is the submissiveness and the false consciousness that some leftists have smugly used to indict these workers.

But if the workforce in Grünheide hasn’t fallen for capitalist propaganda and is in fact in touch with its own material interests, why do these workers then close ranks around the company? Behavior like this is often puzzling for leftists — but as Vivek Chibber shows in his book The Class Matrix: Social Theory After the Cultural Turn, it is what Marxist class theory ought to lead us to expect.

That working people come into open conflict with their employer in the pursuit of their interests is the exception, not the norm in history. The power differential between workers and their bosses is so significant, and the problems of collective action prove to be such hurdles for openly antagonistic strategies, that at an individual level it can be quite rational to take a less confrontational approach. Workers don’t keep their heads down because they’re blind, as armchair radicals like to assume, but because the class structure puts obstacles in their way at every corner, which make resistance difficult and fraught with risk.

If you accept that it can be rational for workers to behave in ways that are not in line with socialist preferences, you stop mocking and start asking. How will the conditions be brought about in which class struggle actually can be waged effectively?

Making Class Struggle Rational

In this case, a first step in this direction would be to turn a more critical eye toward the environmental protests in Grünheide. With slogans like “environment before profits,” militant rhetoric against the Tesla corporation and radical chic, it’s easy to win leftist sympathies. But if you look at the statements the activists have put out, you’d be hard-pressed to find any sign of concern for the interests of the workers.

The substance behind their core issue of environmental protection is similarly dubious in this case. The occupied piece of forest appears to be a commercially used monoculture. The planned expansion of the factory would bring with it a freight yard, reducing noise and CO2 emissions by shifting transport of materials from trucks to rail. Concerns about the safety of drinking water are valid. But the issues here are mostly things like leaking paint, improper disposal of scrap metal, and small fires, not things inherent to the production process.

Tesla won’t voluntarily spend money to fix these things, but stricter regulations and regular inspections could certainly force the company to do that. Unions are often very open to such endeavors, since they also concern workplace safety and have proven to be valuable allies there in the past.

More generally, consumption of resources and a certain level of environmental damage accompany any industrial production. Every building seals a piece of ground. Every production process uses certain raw materials. Human life leaves its mark on nature — there is nothing inherently wrong with this.

Anyone who believes a Volkswagen executive or an Audi board member is intrinsically more friendly toward unions than Elon Musk is falling for class-collaborationist myths.

The local opposition to the factory expansion can’t simply be ignored. Indeed, the efforts of IG-Metall, the union organizing workers at the factory, to talk with the residents of Grünheide are commendable in this regard. But whether the inhabitants of a small village should have a veto over decisions that impact the entire region is questionable to say the least.

Other opponents of the expansion justify their position with reference to the anti-union activities of the company, low wages, and bad working conditions. These are all important issues, yet the position attached to them is strategically nonsensical. Union busting isn’t some concerning, novel deviation within capitalism, but the norm throughout its history.

Capitalist companies that try to maximize their profits are uniformly hostile toward any union activity in their businesses. There’s only one reason why they accept works councils representing employees (as in the German system), collective bargaining, and other infringements on their entrepreneurial freedoms. And it’s that the associational power of their employees and other achievements of the working class, notably labor law, make it more costly to resist than to seek compromise.

Anyone who believes a Volkswagen executive or an Audi board member is intrinsically more friendly toward unions than Musk is falling for class-collaborationist myths. In class struggle, there is no way around the boss’ resistance. And rejecting the expansion of the factory or new Tesla facilities elsewhere does not shift the balance of powers in either the workplace or society as a whole toward working people.

Instead of supporting the environmental protest, leftists (especially organized leftists) in and around Grünheide and Berlin should, for example, think about getting jobs at Tesla to root themselves in the working class and to take the fight directly to the shop floor, like generations of socialists have done before them. In any case they should talk to the workers and credibly convey to them that they have their best interest at heart.

Fighting Tesla From the Inside

Protests against jobs and especially tactics like sabotage isolate us from the people for whom and alongside whom we want to fight. Transnational corporations like Tesla, and even more so capitalism as a system, can’t be defeated without the working class. It’s not enough to just symbolically represent these goals with slogans and protest signs — we have to actually side with workers in specific cases like this. And do so even when they don’t initially respond as enthusiastically to revolutionary rhetoric as people in activist circles might do.

Building up the necessary trust for labor struggles and socialist politics among the workforce means long-term commitment. That work might not satisfy your desire for revolutionary romanticism, but it’s what gets the goods.

Under the radical leadership of Shawn Fain, the United Auto Workers recently won a groundbreaking victory, in which young trade unionists politicized by the Bernie Sanders campaigns and organized in the Democratic Socialists of America played a considerable role. Workers at the Big Three — General Motors, Ford, and Stellantis — won historic wage increases and didn’t just protect existing jobs, but actually won additional investments to create new ones. All without pay concessions or groveling.

A movement that is firmly rooted in the working class can win far-reaching demands that aren’t just in the interest of the vast majority, but also include the investment necessary to protect the climate. That’s the lesson we need when we confront poor employment standards at Tesla, too.

This work has been made possible by the support of the Puffin Foundation.

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