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Tesla Faces Two Front Fight as it Confronts Protestors at Berlin Gigafactory and German Labor Unions

by | April 30, 2024

Tesla face new challenges from unions and environmentalists as the company’s sales and reputation begin to slip in Europe amid the expanding conflicts in Scandinavia and Germany. 

Elon Musk may be way too busy looking for favors from the Chinese government to practice his dance moves for an encore appearance at the Tesla plant near Berlin.  But the activists working to block the expansion of GigaBerlin into a woodland next to the existing plant are preparing for a major demonstration May 8 to 11 to highlight the threats to the local environment from Tesla’s big factory outside the German capital a short distance from the Polish border. 

The organizers behind, “Water, Forest, Justice,” or “Wasser, Wald, Gerechtigkeit” in German, hope to draw hundreds of demonstrators from around Germany and across Europe to the woodland outside GigaBerlin. They are also challenging Musk’s claim that he represents the future. “We need accessible, shared and sustainable future,” they maintain, not more electric cars. “Tesla stands for a destructive capitalist system. It only works through the exploitation of people and the environment,” they add. 

Tesla faces opposition from local residents

GigaBerlin’s expansion has run into opposition from local residents, who this past winter voted against allowing Tesla to expand, and a violent act of sabotage, which toppled electric transmission lines near the plant, forcing it to shut down for more than a week.  Having obtained permits from the local authorities, activists, though, have set up information tables a few steps from the platform of train station at Fangschleuse, which is about 35 minutes by rail from the Alexanderplatz station in central Berlin, and the bus stop used by workers to reach GigaBerlin. 

Under the watchful eye of local police, the activists have also occupied a piece by setting up an encampment and treehouses in the woodland Tesla wants for a potential expansion of the GigaBerlin operation.  The wooded area, which covers one hundred hectares or 247 acres, is currently used for recreation by residents, according to activists. While activists admit it has been something monoculture of spindly pines, but the native plants have begun to reclaim the woodland floor. This change on the forest floor is evident during a short walk through the woods to the activist’s camp. 

The stakes are high

The forest, however, also protects the local watershed, which now supports more than 170,000 residents, who could find their water rationed in the future.  Even though Berlin is surrounded by lakes, the region is dry and fresh water is scarce, according to the activists.  GigaBerlin, on the other hand, draws enough water each day to meet the daily needs of a city of 70,000 people, according to activists, who prefer to use pseudonyms and asked not to have their faces appear in any photographs. 

The big factory also is contributing to the pollution of the groundwater in the area around the plant with employees most of whom commute from Berlin or from Poland, saying they would not drink the local water. Tesla CEO Elon Musk cited the sabotaged power lines as one of the factors in the company’s woeful first quarter. Tesla’s Gigafactory in Grünheide is now the state of Brandenburg’s largest private employer with around 7,000 employees, which contributes to the political tension around the plant. 

Protests come as Tesla faces other challenges

Tesla Buffalo Giga 2 workers REL

Nonetheless, upcoming demonstrations underscore Tesla’s challenges in Europe where the EV maker faces intense competition from traditional automakers from Europe and Asia, and trade unions, which have challenged the company’s anti-union policies. The German metalworker’s union, IG Metall, has operated an office in the old train station in Fangschleuse where workers commuting from Berlin disembark to catch a bus to the Tesla plant a couple of miles away. 

A slate for seats on the plant’s Works Council supported IG by Metall was the leading vote getter, claiming 40% of the votes. A slate supported by Tesla management wound up in second place, according to Tagesspiegel, a German daily newspaper in Berlin. The IG Metall block now controls sixteen seats on new 39-person Works Council – required under German law – falling four seats short of the majority. 

Tesla waged a fierce anti-union campaign, which failed to stop IG Metall from gaining ground in the recent election among the diverse work force, which includes, German and Poles as well as migrants from Syria, Türkiye, Afghanistan, and Iraq. Indeed, the IG Metall organizers prepared material in French at the request of Tesla employees from Senegal, union organizers said. 

“They thought we didn’t have a chance,” added one of the union’s organizers, who asked to speak, “off-the-record,” because they were not authorized to speak to the press. But the tidy office in the train station is busy with a meeting of Tesla employees in their black shirts. 

Union celebrates early victory

Tesla Model Y - front 3-4 by water


Even without a majority, the union now has a voice in the plant’s operations. Tesla was required to give the IG Metall an advance notice for four hundred employees at the plant as part of a company-wide reduction in headcount. The German union’s recent success also upset the narrative advanced by Tesla, which has maintained the company had thwarted the powerful German unions to modernize the German economy, according to IG Metall’s organizers. The narrative seemed to have caught on with the German media if not with Tesla employees, they add. 

 Trade unions, however, have a long history in Berlin. Unions and their political allies first emerged in the 19th century and served as a check on the power of Germany’s conservative rules in politics and business. After World War I during the Weimar Era, trade unions served as key supporters of a democratic Germany. Union members also engaged in the bitter fight against Adolf Hitler and hundreds of union members died in street battles with Nazi paramilitary groups. Trade unions and union leaders were also persecuted after Nazi’s came to power in 1933 but revived after World War II as one of the cornerstones of the budding German democracy. 

Emblematic of union influence on Berlin’s unique culture is the school in suburban Bernau. Built in the 1920s and designed by artisans from Bauhaus, the school was established to help educate union members and leaders. The school’s unique design has landed a spot-on UNESCO’s list of World Heritage sites. 

Musk still defiant of unions despite changing sales fortunes

Musk at Model Y launch

Musk remains dismissive of labor unions, and is continuing refuse to negotiate with IF Metal, the Swedish union waging the strike which began October 27, as he tries to find a way to crush the rebellion by his employees and keep unions out of Tesla’s other plants around the world. As the strike in Sweden continues with support from organized labor throughout Scandinavia where nine of ten workers belong to labor unions, and other countries in European Union such as Germany. 

Meanwhile, Tesla’s sales have been dropping across Scandinavia where the company’s earlier successes, particularly Norway where EVs now dominate, were critical in building Tesla’s image and brand around the world. In Denmark, Tesla sales fell by 33% during the first quarter and by 46 percent in Norway during the same period. Sales in Sweden, the center of the labor strife, dropped by 8 percent as Tesla also faced rising competition from EVs made by Volvo and Polestar. 

But the strike by Swedish mechanics, who are only a fraction of Tesla’s 140,000 plus employees, continues to draw support from trade unionists around the world, according to Industriall, the confederation of metal working unions from across the globe and includes Musk foes such as the IG Metall and the United Auto Workers. 



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