- Tesla is building a giant plant in Germany, but it hasn’t yet made nice with the mighty auto union there.
- IG Metall will likely make life difficult for Tesla, which hasn’t agreed to the industry’s collective wage agreements.
- A battle with the union could threaten Tesla’s ambitious plans for the European market.
- See more stories on Insider’s business page.
As Tesla works to get its mammoth new factory in Germany up and running by the summer, disturbing delicate reptile habitats may be the least of Elon Musk’s worries.
After sparring with locals over everything from water supply to deforestation, there may be an even larger threat looming: Germany’s largest union.
Tesla hasn’t made many friends of labor activists in the US, and the 2.2-million-strong IG Metall isn’t likely to go down without a fight, experts told Insider. A prolonged battle over contracts with the group – which wields considerable political influence and social capital – could derail Tesla’s ambitious plans for the European market.
A standoff over contracts
Virtually every car company operating in Germany is a member of an employers’ association, and IG Metall – which represents metalworkers in the auto industry and other sectors – negotiates industry-wide contracts with the group instead of bargaining with each company individually. That system gives the country’s unions considerably more negotiating power than their US counterparts, which vote to unionize plant by plant.
But there’s a catch – joining the association isn’t required by law, it’s only customary. And Tesla has made every indication it’s not interested in following that deep-rooted norm.
The carmaker has caught heat for union-busting tactics in the US – the National Labor Relations Board ruled in March that Musk must delete an anti-union tweet and reinstate a fired employee who was part of an organizing drive – and it has signaled it’s not keen on working with unions in Germany either.
Tesla ignored a letter from IG Metall inviting a dialogue last year. And it went to great lengths to pacify disgruntled union members at Tesla Grohmann Automation, an engineering firm it acquired in 2016, without entering the industry’s collective agreement. Instead, the carmaker fended off a strike by giving workers a deal that was comparable to the industry-wide wage (plus stock options).
It could try to pull the same play at Gigafactory Berlin.
The stakes are high for IG Metall
But IG Metall likely wants to avoid that scenario at all costs, Stephen Silvia, a professor at American University whose research focuses on comparative labor relations, told Insider.
Allowing a massive non-union plant to build cars in Germany would set the dangerous precedent that companies don’t need to engage in collective bargaining, he said. It would also mean thousands of members would potentially go without the contractually enforced job security, wages, and benefits the rest of the industry enjoys.
Moreover, IG Metall stands to lose bargaining power with other automakers if it can’t get Tesla to play ball, said Arthur Wheaton, an automotive industry expert at Cornell University’s School of Industrial and Labor Relations. It’s especially crucial that IG Metall preserve all the sway it can at a time when carmakers are pivoting to EV production, which, Wheaton said, requires roughly 30% fewer workers than traditional auto manufacturing.
“It’s all about labor density,” he said. “Every plant that opens that’s not unionized hurts [IG Metall’s] power.”
The union can make life difficult for Tesla
Given the stakes, IG Metall is likely to employ a whole menu of strategies to bring Tesla to its side. And there’s no guarantee that any of it will bear fruit. Amazon, for example, has for years resisted calls from Germany’s service-sector union, Verdi, to recognize collective bargaining agreements.
Silvia, who has spoken to the union about its plans, anticipates a public relations campaign and protests to exert political and social pressure on Tesla to “be a good corporate citizen.”
“It’s very difficult to force a completely unwilling company,” Silvia said. “They’ll just have to make [Tesla’s] life as uncomfortable as possible.”
IG Metall could also organize rolling strikes, though there are restrictions on how long they can last and when they can occur. Grey-area “guerilla actions” – like slowing down work at a Tesla supplier where IG Metall might have members – may also be in the union’s playbook, Silvia said.
IG Metall may also try to influence Tesla’s leadership from within. The carmaker will be required by law to allow Gigafactory Berlin employees to form a works council – a group that represents the interests of the factory’s workforce – and IG Metall could make sure it’s stacked with members, according to Silvia.
Wheaton, however, thinks IG Metall’s main weapon for putting the squeeze on Tesla is blocking the completion of the factory altogether. IG Metall could work with environmentalist groups to slow down construction, he said.
Since beginning work on Gigafactory Berlin in early 2020, Tesla has faced setbacks from environmental activists and regulators over issues like deforestation, water usage, and the well-being of wildlife surrounding the construction site. And it has encountered delays over procedural problems having to do with work permits and deposits.
The stakes are high for Tesla, too
The carmaker likely wants to avoid any more stumbles as it looks to get the plant, which forms the cornerstone of its European strategy, online by July. Tesla aims to eventually build 500,000 European-market cars per year and produce its next-generation battery cells at the facility, and a protracted struggle with IG Metall could impede those plans.
Getting the factory up to speed as quickly and as smoothly as possible is critical for Tesla as it works to scale production worldwide and defend its market share from a growing number of EV-making rivals, most notably German automaker Volkswagen.
Tesla did not return Insider’s request for comment on whether it is open to joining the collective wage agreement.
IG Metall, for its part, said it’s approaching Tesla as it would any other manufacturer looking to open up a facility in Germany. Union representatives did not respond to Insider’s request for an interview but the chairman of IG Metall Berlin Jan Otto told Insider in an emailed statement that he doesn’t “feel any frustration towards Tesla and the new Gigafactory in Grünheide.”
“It is our job to organize people and negotiate collective agreements once we have reached more than 60/70% of the workers. In the past, we have organized thousands of workers in new and old companies,” Otto continued. “Tesla is a big player, but for us, it is just another company.”