Tesla’s confrontation with Swedish workers highlights how solidarity must be enabled in a globalised Europe.
The European Union is built on ‘four freedoms’, relating to goods, capital, services and workers’ movement. They are fundamental to the functioning of the single market and the integration of the continent. But these primarily economic freedoms are not enough to ensure a fair and just Europe for all.
The former president of the European Commission Jacques Delors, who recently passed away, understood that. He rightly concluded that ‘nobody can fall in love with a common market’. Delors, with his solid trade-union background, declared that the European Union must be a place for social as well as economic development. Economic efficiency and social progress had to be combined.
What might be described as a ‘fifth freedom’, that of workers to act in solidarity, beyond national boundaries, is thus equally important yet often neglected. When capital goes global, so must trade unions.
Solidarity actions happen when workers from different sectors, regions or countries join forces to support each other’s struggles for better working conditions, social rights and democracy. They are a powerful tool to counterbalance the power of large corporations, especially those that are anti-union and hostile to collective bargaining and which exploit cross-border freedoms to undermine workers’ and trade-union rights.
But such actions are also a manifestation of core European values: solidarity chimes with diversity and democracy. The freedom to act in solidarity is necessary to provide the balance in industrial relations that supports strong collective bargaining and underpins our democratic models.
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An important example of solidarity action is the strike by Swedish metal workers against Tesla, the US electric-car manufacturer. The workers are demanding a collective agreement that guarantees decent wages, pensions and insurance, as is the norm in the Swedish automotive industry. Tesla, however, refuses to negotiate with the union, IF Metall, and instead unilaterally imposes terms and conditions.
The strike by the Tesla mechanics has received support from other unions in Sweden. Dockworkers are refusing to unload Tesla cars, postal workers are stopping the delivery of licence plates, cleaners and electricians are boycotting Tesla showrooms, rubbish is not being picked up and taxi drivers are rejecting Tesla vehicles.
To sidestep this pushback, Tesla has attempted to bring in cars from neighbouring countries. Now, port workers in Denmark, Norway and Finland have decided to stand with the Tesla workers—solidarity extends across borders. Via their unions, they are collectively enforcing a blockade of Tesla vehicles destined for Sweden.
This is what the Nordic social model defending itself looks like. A hugely powerful multinational corporation is attempting to circumvent unions—the institutions of workers’ collective power. Thousands of workers on which the corporation relies are standing up through their unions to hold it to account.
That solidarity action should be a core part of the very social model that delivers the greatest shared prosperity in Europe is not a coincidence. It is because workers in the Nordic countries have the power to stand up for their interests. The Nordic model performs as well as it does only because workers have the freedom to act in solidarity and bring corporate giants to the negotiating table.
Across Europe, this is far from being the case. During the neoliberal wave, starting in the 1970s, misguided or even malicious decision-makers outlawed solidarity actions by workers. In many EU countries, even if workers voted to take collective action in support of fellow workers elsewhere, they would not be permitted to do so. Governments thus stripped workers, when multinationals raised the stakes, of the ability to follow suit.
Over the years our European institutions have not done enough to protect and promote the right to strike and the freedom of workers to take solidarity actions. On the contrary, the EU has often intervened to limit or undermine these rights, for instance by imposing austerity measures which have eroded collective bargaining and social dialogue, or by initiating infringement procedures against member states that have tried to protect workers’ rights.
It is crucial for the sustainability of the European social model that it equips itself with the tools to hold multinationals to account. To do so, the EU needs to adopt measures that secure the right to strike and the freedom of workers to engage in solidarity across borders, without interference from national or European authorities.
Establishing the fifth freedom would also be in line with the European Pillar of Social Rights. This affirms that workers have the right to be informed and consulted on matters relevant to them, to participate in the determination and improvement of their working conditions and to engage in collective bargaining through their unions.
The Tesla affair is a wake-up call for the EU. It shows that the transition to a green and digital economy cannot be left to the whims of anti-union corporations which exploit workers and disregard social and environmental standards. It also shows that workers are not passive spectators but active agents of change, ready to fight for a just transition that benefits everyone.
The EU must do more to support workers and their unions, not corporations and their profits. It must recognise that solidarity actions are not a threat but a resource, for a more democratic, social and sustainable Europe.
The single market is not complete without a fifth freedom—the right of workers to engage in solidarity without constraint by national borders. As the EU becomes more integrated through the single market, we need to integrate in parallel the ability of workers to act in solidarity.
This amounts to equipping workers and trade unions with the tools to establish and protect a truly social Europe, which in turn would facilitate a European industrial-relations system. The straitjacket of neoliberal thinking can be conferred to the past. The time has come to treat solidarity as Europe’s fifth freedom.
Claes-Mikael Ståhl has been deputy general secretary at the European Trade Union Confederation since September 2021. He deals with trade, mobility, employment, cohesion funds and occupational health and safety.