Swedish unions flex their muscles against Tesla

Tesla vehicles line a parking lot at the company’s Fremont, Calif., factory in September. (AP)

For the past week, not a single Tesla has passed through Sweden's four biggest ports. Starting today, broken chargers won't get repaired. Next week, parts deliveries to repair shops and garbage pickups will stop.

Such are the repercussions of Swedish unions flexing their muscles against the world's biggest electric-car company. While the effects of a strike at Tesla Inc.'s seven repair shops in the country are a far cry from what could come of efforts to unionize factories in Germany and the United States, they're indicative of how powerful and pervasive labor groups are in an important market for Elon Musk.

The anti-union billionaire has successfully fended off organizing efforts for years. If he meets his match in Sweden -- where two in three working adults belong to a union and close to 90% are employed at workplaces with collective bargaining agreements -- it could set a precedent for how labor groups take on the company elsewhere, at a time when Musk is eager to cut costs.

The dust-up started Oct. 27, when the IF Metall union called a strike in what is Tesla's fifth-biggest market in Europe. In a show of solidarity, the Swedish Transport Workers' Union stopped loading and unloading the company's cars at Sweden's four main harbors beginning Nov. 7.

While Tesla's operations in Sweden may be limited, a company of its global prominence bucking local practices would undermine the broader labor model, according to Jesper Hamark, visiting research fellow at the University of Gothenburg.

"For the Swedish labor union movement, the question is exponentially bigger than these seven repair shops," Hamark said. "Tesla's actions threaten the entire Swedish labor market system."

In a Nov. 7 statement, Tesla called IF Metall's strike "unfortunate." The company said it adheres to Swedish labor market regulations, already offers equivalent or better agreements than those covered by collective bargaining and would remain in open dialogue with the union.

It's not the first time Swedish labor has clashed with a U.S. company. In 1995, Toys R Us initially refused to sign a collective bargaining agreement. After a three-month strike by the Swedish Commercial Employees' Union, the retailer caved.

Much has changed since, with union membership in Sweden falling from close to 90% to around 66%. While that's still among the highest among Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development countries, unions' influence has waned as a new generation of workers enter a more service- and technology-based labor market.

Efforts to stem the tide by taking on one of the world's most recognizable brands are drawing support from outside Sweden. Germany's IG Metall, which has been trying to unionize Tesla's factory in Grunheide, Germany, issued a statement last week pledging its full support.

"Your strike also gives our colleagues in Grunheide courage and confidence to organize themselves into a union and take their fate into their own hands," IG Metall said.