Scandinavia is witnessing a wave of strikes on a scale not seen since the late 1970s. At the end of October, the US car manufacturer Tesla – Elon Musk’s electric car enterprise - refused to sign collective agreements with the Swedish IF Metall union, guaranteeing a minimum wage. A strike was declared in the company’s 10 repair workshops. It was followed by expressions of solidarity by postal workers, who blocked all mail bound for Tesla's workshops, by dockers in four Swedish ports, who joined the strike on 6 November, and by electricians who refused to carry out maintenance work on electrical charging points. At the beginning of November, faced with the risk of a strike for wage increases at the Karna bank, the unions and bosses rushed out a collective agreement.
The conflict with Tesla has also rapidly taken on an international dimension, with solidarity actions in ports to the company's repair workshops in Denmark and Norway, and at the Tesla factories in Germany.
There had already been signs heralding this outbreak of workers’ militancy. In April, 2023 a wildcat strike broke out among public transport workers in Stockholm, which lasted for four days. This is significant as it was the first wildcat strike for decades in Sweden. Workers struck against the worsening conditions, and despite the fact that the strike was limited to one part of public transport, the train drivers, there were strike meetings open to other workers. Also, the workers were supported by fund-raising and expressions of solidarity on social media. Unlike the present ongoing Tesla strike, this strike was not publicised, unless newspapers reported on the “chaos” it created.
Part of an international movement
With the exception of the transport wildcat in April, all these strikes since October have been tightly controlled by the unions. But this does not alter the fact that this movement can only be understood as part of a world-wide revival of class struggle in reaction to capitalism’s dire economic situation, and above all to the inflationary pressures behind the “cost of living crisis”, which is now also affecting workers in the Scandinavian countries famous for their “quality of life” and wide-ranging welfare services. The unions in Scandinavia have had plenty of warnings from the upsurge of struggles in other countries (Britain, France, USA, and now Canada), and their mobilisations and “solidarity actions” are part of a policy aimed at derailing a real development of consciousness in the working class. What concerns bosses and unions alike is the return of a genuine sense of solidarity within and between sectors of the class, and even across national borders, and thus the beginnings of a recovery of class identity, the awareness that workers in all sectors and countries are part of a class exploited by capital and facing similar attacks on its living standards.
Equally significant is the fact that struggles occur at all today in Sweden, which is on the verge of joining NATO, which contributes significant resources to the arming of Ukraine, and where propaganda around the war with Russia is virtually incessant. In January two top defence officials warned that Swedes must prepare for the possibility of war: “Civil Defence Minister Carl-Oskar Bohlin told a defence conference ‘there could be war in Sweden’. His message was then backed up by military commander-in-chief Gen Micael Byden, who said all Swedes should prepare mentally for the possibility”.
And yet despite the bourgeoisie’s attempts to whip up war fever, workers have put their own living standards first. This does not mean that the workers are reacting directly to the threat of war, but their willingness to fight on their own terrain against the impact of the economic crisis is the basis for a future development of consciousness about the link between economic crisis and war, and thus about the need to confront capitalism as a whole system of plunder and destruction.
The bourgeois slogans of the unions
It remains the case that these advances in class consciousness are very fragile and, as ever, the trade unions are there to block and distort them. The main slogan of the unions has been the “defence of the Swedish model” of collective agreement between unions and bosses.
For over five years, IF Metall has been calling for collective agreements for the workers on the existing Tesla workshops in Sweden. Tesla has refused, categorically, which left IF Metall with little alternative but to call the strike on 27 October. The conflict was from the start highly coordinated by the unions. On the 7th of November, the Transport Workers' Union and Harbour Workers’ Union joined the conflict and blocked all ports in Sweden where Tesla cars are loaded and unloaded. During November, several official trade unions announced sympathy measures: the Electricians' Union, the Painters' Union, the Government Employees' Association and others. Important customers of Tesla, such as Stockholm Taxi, announced that they will no longer buy their cars unless Tesla signs a collective agreement, and that "The Swedish model with collective agreements is an important principle that must be defended".
News about the blockade was publicised daily in the Swedish media, as well as continuous updates on the conflict. As the strike continued, this media interest was not limited to Sweden, since prestigious bourgeois publications like The Economist, Financial Times and The Guardian followed it closely, as well as representatives of the EU, who described the “Swedish Model” as part of “Social Europe” against “US anti-union policies”. Throughout, the spotlight on the personality of Elon Musk as an exceptionally ruthless billionaire has been used to divert attention from the reality that all capitalists need to increase their attacks on workers’ wages and conditions. Even better for stoking up nationalism is the fact that this particular attack is being spearheaded by an American company.
The other face of the “collective agreement” ideology is the promotion of divisions between unionised and non-unionised workers. In the Tesla strike, workers who were not unionised, continued working, which led IF Metall to set up picket lines outside the workshops, accusing these non-unionised workers of being “scabs”.
Union methods lead to defeat
Today, a few days into the new year, the strike is still ongoing, with no prospects of an outcome, since Elon Musk and Tesla refuse to negotiate. Some unionised workers have gone back to work, risking exclusion from IF Metall, and also being labeled “scabs” in the leftist press. Since the beginning of December last year, no news has appeared on the strike. Portrayed originally as a struggle between David and Goliath, the media interest seems to have vanished.
Today, the top officials of IF Metall have no intention of calling for solidarity from other workers in the same sector. The Tesla workers are locked into a dynamic of defeat, which the current campaigns on “scabs” bears witness to.
In the face of the sacrifices that will be increasingly demanded of them in the name of the national economy and the defence of the country, workers need to come to their own collective agreement: the agreement to gather together and make decisions in general assemblies that are not controlled by the unions, to spread their struggles to other enterprises and sectors whether unionised or not, and whether inside or outside the rules of the “Swedish model”.
Eriksson and Amos, January 2024
Addendum: What is the “Swedish model”?
The expression “the Swedish Model” has often been used to describe the Swedish welfare state generally, but originally it meant a very strict regulation of conflicts on the labour market. In the 1930s, strikes were commonplace in Sweden and the Social Democratic government, who had come to power in 1932, did not want to intervene, but turned to LO (the Swedish central union apparatus, like the TUC in Britain) to stop this. In 1938, LO signed a historic agreement with the employers’ federation, the SAF, where it was stated that central negotiations should be held, union by union, where no unions should take advantage but follow a maximum limit of wages. In this way, the state was guaranteed a stable economy without needing to intervene to keep the wages down (very practical for the Social Democratic state apparatus). In this agreement, it was stipulated that no industrial action was allowed during an agreement period. In effect, this was a ban on strikes that effectively was in action until the wildcat strikes began to appear in the late 1960s and early 1970s. The Swedish Model means in reality “peace on the labour market” and a ban on strikes – so of course the trade union and the bourgeoisie in general support this!
To have a collective agreement at a certain workplace means that workers are guaranteed limited working hours, holidays and overtime payment as well as insurance and unemployment benefits, which in Sweden are regulated by the unions. It is therefore a part of the general welfare system. Having no collective agreement means in this case that, except for the general benefits and insurances, Tesla decides about your wage through their own premium system and you must sign a confidentiality contract before you start working (one worker was sacked because his wife posted on X/Twitter about the conditions at his workplace).
Of course, these conditions are appalling, but it is a profound illusion to think that union legality and “collective agreements” can really protect workers from the assaults of a capitalist class which is being driven to the wall by the world economic crisis and the growing weight of the war economy. Furthermore, the unions’ link to the wider state machinery means that they are themselves part of these assaults. IF Metall, the strongest and most influential union in Sweden, has a history of close connections with the Social Democratic state apparatus. Stefan Löfvén, the former Swedish PM, honed his leadership credentials as an IF Metall chairman when he managed to cut down the wage demands in the central agreement just after the financial crisis in 2008, declaring that workers must be “responsible” in the face of the crisis.
 “Swedish alarm after defence chiefs' war warning” – BBC News