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Elon Musk and Trade Unionism


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.

Growing up 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.

According to 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.”

Seemingly emulating his father’s style, he was ruthless in his criticism of subordinates with a fondness for humiliating them in front of coworkers – despicable, low-life behavior.

 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.”

The biography contains many scenes of Musk acting as a tyrant with his employees. This is his management style, his modus operandi.

His strong 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.”

Isaacson 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.

Not surprisingly, he views trade unions representing workers’ interests as an obstacle to his ego-driven plans.

Until about 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 weekly salary.

Unions were 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.

The employment 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.

This 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!

Some 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 strikers.

The union 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 they won.

 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.

Meanwhile, 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.

The ongoing 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 Atlantic.


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