Tesla Is Fighting With Sweden’s Unions. Here’s What to Know.

Weeks after mechanics working for Tesla in Sweden walked off their jobs in late October, members of other unions across the country and in Denmark and Norway have joined the mechanics in sympathy by refusing to provide services to Tesla to pressure the automaker to sign a collective agreement with its Swedish workers.

The strike in Sweden, by 120 mechanics represented by the trade union IF Metall, was the first labor action against Tesla, the U.S. maker of electric vehicles founded 20 years ago and run by Elon Musk. The strike has spread beyond Sweden after dockworkers in Denmark said they would stop unloading Tesla vehicles at ports around the country.

Tesla does not make cars in Sweden, and the country is a relatively small market for the automaker. Not all of the mechanics at its seven service centers are taking part in the strike. But the widening support from unions including dockworkers, electrical and postal workers has pressured the automaker to take legal action to compel delivery of license plates. Temporary rulings have been made in two court cases, but the final decisions are still pending.

Unions say Tesla is flouting Sweden’s tradition of collective agreements. About 90 percent of Swedish workers are covered by these agreements, which apply to nonunion employees and set work conditions across industries. They have a long history in Nordic countries and are widely seen as crucial to maintaining social cohesion and a high standard of living.

The strikers and the unions taking up their cause “are fighting an incredibly important battle right now,” Jan Villadsen, chairman of the 3F Transport union representing the Danish dockworkers, said in a statement. “Even if you are one of the richest in the world, you can’t just make your own rules,” he said, referring to Mr. Musk.

But Tesla’s Model Y is a hugely popular sport utility vehicle in Sweden, topping the list of electric cars sold this year. Some industry officials in Sweden are becoming worried that a protracted labor battle could harm business at repair shops forced to stop servicing Tesla vehicles.

IF Metall wants Tesla to start talks about adopting a collective agreement. The pact would set the basis for wages and benefits for all, although only about 70 of Tesla’s 120 mechanics in Sweden belong to the union.

The union believes that most of its members at Tesla are staying home, but concedes that “some are regrettably at work despite the strike.”

At least 10 other unions have joined by refusing to clean Tesla’s facilities, service its battery chargers, or paint and repair its vehicles. All told, about 150 members of IF Metall and other unions are involved in the strike in some way, the union said.

Union leaders see the blockade against Tesla as one that defends the Swedish Model, a way of life that has defined the country’s economy for decades. At its heart is cooperation between employers and employees to ensure that both sides benefit equally from a company’s profit.

But organized labor is not so strong in emerging green industries, and union leaders in Sweden are concerned that if those jobs remain nonunion, they will have lower wages and fewer benefits.

Tesla, which starting selling cars in Sweden in 2013, has not responded to repeated requests for comment. But Mr. Musk has more than once made clear how he feels about organized labor, most recently at the DealBook Summit in New York.

“I disagree with the idea of unions,” Mr. Musk said, then went on to accuse them of creating “a lords and peasants situation” within the work force and stirring discontent between managers and workers. “I think unions naturally try to create negativity within a company,” he said.

Tesla has insisted that it follows Swedish labor laws but has chosen not to sign a collective agreement. None of its service centers have been forced to close because of the strike.

When postal workers stopped delivering license plates to Tesla, the company sued the government agency that produces the plates and PostNorden, the postal company the government uses to deliver them. Union members at the postal company have been refusing to deliver all of Tesla’s mail, including the plates. Tesla argued that the agency should provide the plates directly to the automaker and demanded that the postal company surrender the plates it had.

In late November, a judge ruled that the agency must make the plates available to Tesla, but later overturned that ruling, leaving the company reliant on PostNorden.

Solidarity among unions in Nordic countries is strong, and IF Metall has been in talks with neighboring labor groups. One tactic is simply blocking new Tesla vehicles from entering the country: In Denmark, officials of the 3F Transport union, representing dockworkers and drivers, said they would stop unloading Tesla vehicles bound for Sweden that arrived at Danish ports. They join Swedish dockworkers who have refused to unload the vehicles since mid-November.

The automaker has tried to evade the dockworkers’ blockade by transporting cars into Sweden from neighboring countries, but once the Danish dockworkers join the strike, one easy point of entry — the bridge that connects Copenhagen with Malmo in Sweden — will be closed off. The Fellesforbundet confederation of unions in Norway said it would boycott the transport of cars to Sweden. The unions in both Denmark and Norway said the boycott would be aimed only at cars destined for Sweden.

Support has been split. Some view the strike as an important statement about their way of life, and others say the union has gone too far and is promoting an unwinnable, and to some unjust, fight.

The Model Y ranked as Sweden’s best-selling electric vehicle in November, reflecting continued demand despite the strike.

An official from an association that represents local car repair shops has also raised concerns that some of its members are being hit hard by the sympathy strikes, which prevent them from carrying out any repairs.

“We see that it is an unfortunate situation which, in the event of a protracted conflict, risks threatening Swedish jobs,” said Hanna Alsen, head of negotiations at the Motor Industry Employers’ Association.

Strikes are rare in Sweden. Often the threat of a walkout is enough for negotiations to begin. IF Metall said it had tried for years to bring Tesla to the negotiating table.

The union has said it is prepared for a protracted fight but would end the action if Tesla agreed to discuss a collective agreement.

At the same time, Tesla remains the only major U.S. automaker without union representation. The company has remained resistant to unions even in European countries with strong traditions of organized labor, including Germany, where Tesla opened a factory in 2022.

Esben Pedersen, who helped bring Tesla to Europe, said the automaker might have painted itself into a corner in Sweden, adding that the strike is about a larger issue than just wages and benefits.

“It’s about a cultural clash between two distinct systems: the Scandinavian labor market model, which emphasizes collective negotiation, and the Silicon Valley ethos of agility in pivoting, coupled with Elon’s focus on vertical integration,” he said. “Even if he offers compensation that exceeds requirements, the strike would likely continue until Tesla agrees to a collective bargaining agreement.”