Elon Musk and Trade Unionism Gerry OShea
Elon Musk is
a clear symbol of modern capitalism, and he is currently involved in a major cultural
clash with the Trade Union movement in Sweden with important ramifications for
his businesses in Germany and the United States.
He has accumulated more money than any of the
other 900-plus Americans who have proudly identified as members of the
exclusive billionaires’ club. While Elon was born in South Africa he settled in
Palo Alto California at age 24 close to thirty years ago just as the dot-com
boom was about to begin.
in his own country, he was seen as a nerd by his peers and demeaned as a
weakling. He was bullied regularly and on one occasion was beaten so badly by other
boys that his brother found it hard to recognize him.
his authorized biographer, Walter Isaacson, his father Errol dominated the
family and focused his deranged dictatorial behavior on Elon, his eldest son.
He never tired of telling him how useless he was – a terrible growing-up story
in any culture.
When he had
his first experience of being a boss, Isaacson describes him as a demanding
manager who “drove himself relentlessly all day and halfway through the night, without
vacations, and he expected others to do the same.”
emulating his father’s style, he was ruthless in his criticism of subordinates
with a fondness for humiliating them in front of coworkers – despicable,
His biographer attributes his harsh management
style to a “weak empathy gene.” He talks about a genetic deficiency in “Elon’s
emotional receptors” that stymie everyday kindness and warmth, and he later
adds more inane psychobabble suggesting that his “neural nets have trouble when
dealing with human feelings.”
biography contains many scenes of Musk acting as a tyrant with his employees. This
is his management style, his modus operandi.
autocratic tendencies are also evident in his romantic life. “I am the alpha in
this relationship,” he told his first wife when they were dancing at their
wedding. Later, he highlighted this need for dominance by frequently apprising
her, “If you were an employee, I would fire you.”
Tying this unfortunate
trait to the cruelty that Elon endured growing up, his second wife, Talulah
Riley, drew the clear comparison, “Inside the man, he is still a child standing
in front of his dad.”
One of his
favorite words as a boss is “hardcore,” which entails driving his workers to engage
more intensely with their tasks. In a 2012 memo to Tesla employees, he called
for a level of intensity “that is greater than any of you has experienced
before.” The heading of the memo was “Ultra Hardcore.”
identifies this kind of language as representing his creed, his belief system, and
his values. The capitalist game is about acquiring money, prestige, and power
and, without money the other two are easily shaved away.
surprisingly, he views trade unions representing workers’ interests as an
obstacle to his ego-driven plans.
fifty years ago unions played an important role in American life. Workers’
salaries and conditions of employment improved steadily after the end of the
Second World War. However, the neoliberals with their laissez-faire
fundamentalist philosophy preached about the importance of low taxes and
monetary austerity and, above all, a compliant workforce that follows orders
from the top. This rhetoric conveys to workers that they should be grateful to
their employer for a steady job and act with suitable subservience for their
seen as an impediment to progress, stifling the power of corporations on their
way to accumulating massive profits. Increases in GDP were attributed to the
new libertarian approach which had no place for systemic consultation or
negotiation with workers. Despite huge increases in employee productivity and
company profits, workers’ salaries, allowing for inflation, have not increased
in America in the last half-century.
In the 1970s
top managers earned up to thirty times the salary of the shop floor worker.
Today the multiple is over 300 and growing, and the unionized workforce has
declined from a high of nearly 30% to a mere 10% today.
model in Scandinavian countries is very different. At its heart, it involves
cooperation between management and workers in an atmosphere of mutual respect
to ensure that both sides benefit from company profits.
approach fits in with the kind of capitalism endorsed by the powerful
democratic socialist movement which affirms the importance of company profits
but insists that a strong bottom financial line is best achieved by workers who
are treated with dignity. There is more to living than company gold!
technicians in the Musk-owned Swedish Tesla plant are on strike. One of the
strikers complained about the plant culture, “just work, work, work, six-day
workweeks and unavoidable overtime.” 90% of the workforce in Sweden works under
a labor agreement and 65% of employees are unionized. A clear majority of Swedes support the
involved in the dispute with Tesla has called for support from other unions. In
response, their colleagues in Denmark, Norway, and Finland have rallied behind
their Swedish comrades. Musk realizes he is dealing with a major confrontation.
The last big
company that resisted collective bargaining was Toys R Us which started in
Sweden in 1995. There was a standoff for three months between the company and
trade union leaders who stood in solidarity against the American company and
At a recent business meeting in New York, Mr.
Musk explained that from his perspective unions “create a lord and peasants
situation” – an extraordinary contention because that is the ethos that
validates the need for elected worker representatives.
At Tesla’s super
factory near Berlin, the company’s second hub outside of the United States, a
growing number of the roughly 11,000 workers want to be organized. These men
and women are watching closely the developments in Sweden.
back in America, the UAW had a very successful 2023 during which President
Biden walked the picket line with their members and helped them to negotiate
major improvements in their contracts with the big three automakers. The union
leadership has indicated that a major effort to organize Tesla plants is on the
cards for 2024.
titanic clash between Musk and his top-down authoritarian approach to
industrial relations and the Scandinavian model stressing formal cooperation
and meaningful consultation is being closely watched on both sides of the