What Swedish Mechanics Remind Us About Labor Justice

Image by Austin Ramsey.

When Swedish mechanics working for Tesla walked off the job in late October, their action may not have seemed consequential to most Americans. But, by way of contrast, these workers now powerfully remind us not only of some of the most glaring defects of American labor relations, but also of pathways that can return the U.S. to a greater measure of economic equality and labor justice.

The Swedish mechanics struck because they wanted a collective agreement with Tesla, posing the first such challenge to that company in its 20 years of existence. Represented by the union IF Metall, they understood such agreements as foundational to a social fabric defined by a strong social safety net and a relatively low level of economic inequality. Despite recent declines, Sweden has one of the highest levels of union density in the world, with approximately seven out of ten workers represented by unions.

Once the Swedish mechanics took the initiative, workers in other unions and other countries soon followed suit. Danish dockworkers represented by Denmark’s 3F labor union refused to unload or transport Teslas intended for Swedish consumers. Other transport unions in Norway and Finland soon joined the stoppage, and a Swedish court rejected a Tesla lawsuit that attempted to prevent Swedish postal workers from refusing to deliver license plates for Teslas. A labor-run pension fund, Pension Danmark, divested $57 million in Tesla stocks.

In response, Tesla CEO Elon Musk reiterated his opposition to unions, stating recently that they create a “lords and peasants situation with the work force and naturally try to create negativity within a company.” He labelled the growing wave of strikes in Nordic countries “insane.”

This Nordic wave brings into sharp relief the contrast with the U.S. labor scene, where American workers have to contend with right-to work laws and union busting, hurdles particularly onerous to workers attempting to secure first-time collective agreements. In 26 states, right-to-work laws undermine the capacity of unions to maintain strong financial footings, and union busting practices, enabled by weak labor laws, place workers at a severe disadvantage when organizing. The practices range from employers’ foot-dragging in collective bargaining, to shut-downs of unionized stores or plants, to political maneuverings that prevent unions from getting any kind of initial foothold.

All these obstacles have driven down U.S. union density over the past several decades, so that only one in 10 Americans (10.1 percent) is now represented by a union, a profound contrast with union densities in countries like Sweden (70 percent), Denmark (67 percent) and Finland (74 percent). Because levels of union representation contribute to comparative levels of economic equality or inequality in nations, it’s not surprising that recent studies confirm not only greater inequality in the U.S. than in countries like Denmark or Sweden, but also more rapidly increasing inequality.

And inequality impinges on significant markers of well-being, including poverty rates and rates of infant and maternal mortality, the latter being a key index of a nation’s health. It’s no surprise that the U.S. lags behind the Nordic nations in these markers as well.

At this time, it’s unclear how the conflict between the Nordic unions and Tesla will play out. It’s unlikely that the unions will capitulate, and Elon Musk’s unwillingness to accept collective agreements has provoked strong pushback from many sectors, including powerful institutional investors in Nordic countries.

What the conflict signals to America, however, is the power of labor militancy and inter-union solidarity, factors that proved essential to U.S. union victories in 2023. In taking on the most valued automaker in the world, the Swedish mechanics and their fellow unionists remind us that it wasn’t long ago (the early 1950’s) when one in three American workers belonged to a union, with union power playing a significant role in reducing American economic inequality to the lowest levels it had ever reached before or since.

The road back to greater economic equality requires a shared vision of the essential contributions that unions make to collective well-being. And, as the Nordic unions remind us, it also requires the political will that only a shared culture and broad institutional supports can empower.

Andrew Moss is an emeritus professor from the California State Polytechnic University, Pomona, where he taught a course, “War and Peace in Literature,” for 10 years.