Elon Musk just escalated his war on workers

The union-busting CEO wants to blow up labor protections around the world

Elon Musk just escalated his war on workers
Source: Flickr/NASA

Remember that DealBook Summit where Elon Musk told Twitter/X advertisers to go fuck themselves last month? That wasn’t the only unhinged thing he said, but you probably didn’t hear about any of the rest of it because of how that statement dominated the media coverage — and for good reason.

Tesla is facing an escalating labor action in the Nordic countries over its refusal to negotiate with the union representing its service workers in Sweden. It only affects about 130 workers, but for Musk and Tesla it’s all about principle — that is, the principle that unions are terrible and workers shouldn’t have the power to collectively bargain.

Moderator Andrew Ross Sorkin asked Musk about that at the Summit, and he gave probably the most Muskian answer he could give — meaning it made absolutely no sense, except maybe if you’d been using a bit too much ketamine, but even then I’d be skeptical. Responding to Sorkin, Musk didn’t just disagree with “the idea of unions”; he said they created “a lords and peasants sort of thing” where the unions — not the richest man in the world — are the lords that need to be overthrown. And Musk seems intent on trying to do just that.

A long history of bad management

One thing that’s often left out of the reporting on Musk and his business antics is the fact he has a very long history of treating workers terribly and opposing their right to collectively bargain, let alone giving them fair compensation or a safe workplace. Up until the mass layoffs at Twitter, the media largely treated Musk’s terrible management style as a quirk of a man leading us into the future.

He could oppose Tesla unionization, threaten to take away workers’ stock options, or create a workplace that led to far higher injury rates than the industry standard. Workers could sue him for the deeply racist and sexist work environments he fostered, and force workers into mandatory overtime periods his biographer Walter Isaacson called “surges” often for no reason other than he was in a bad mood. Don’t get me wrong: this stuff would often be reported on. But it wouldn’t become part of the narrative about Musk, who was said to be saving the planet with his electric cars and singlehandedly reviving the space program.

The workers simply didn’t get the same consideration as the Great Man who was in charge, and that long period of ignorance (or infatuation) has had immense consequences which are now being felt in yet another tech-led campaign against labor rights.

The campaign against Nordic workers

In the Nordic region, the consequences of Tesla’s union-busting tactics have already led to solidarity strikes in Norway, Denmark, and Finland in support of Swedish Tesla employees. Workers in the region see a possible threat to a labor model that has ensured high rates of unionization which have better protected workers from the neoliberal onslaught of recent decades than in other countries.

“Digital and green transition companies are becoming more and more essential for the future labour market and if they don’t sign collective agreements, the number of workers covered will fall and workers’ rights will be eroded,” said Anders Kjellberg, a professor at Lund University in Sweden, to the Nordic Labour Journal. It’s a similar concern to workers in many other countries, including the United States, where the United Auto Workers recently won commitments from the Detroit Three to protect unionized autoworkers in the electric transition.

So far, Tesla is refusing to back down, even after Nordic investors wrote to Tesla management to ask them to stop their opposition to the local labor model. Tesla even has an easy way out: it can bypass negotiating a collective agreement by joining the Swedish Confederation of Transport Enterprises and signing onto their collective agreement. Instead, it’s chosen to go nuclear. Last month, Tesla began searching for a Nordic public policy expert who will be expected to ensure the “political, regulatory and fiscal frameworks” in the Nordic region “support Tesla’s mission” — meaning to break the labor laws that protect its workers. But it isn’t stopping there.

Blowing up US labor protections

Back home in the United States, Musk and his companies are facing growing scrutiny over their labor practices, and the billionaire isn’t known to take kindly to any agency that tries to hold him accountable for his actions. Last year, a group of SpaceX employees were fired after writing an open letter calling out the harm Musk’s antics were causing to the company. The National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) recently found the company illegally violated its employees’ right to collectively fight to improve their workplace.

Instead of hiring the workers back and issuing an apology, SpaceX has decided to target the very heart of US worker protections by filing a federal lawsuit in Brownsville, Texas — a jurisdiction where he’s likely to get a friendly hearing — that argues the NLRB’s structure is “the very definition of tyranny.” The company, under the authority of its increasingly radicalized CEO, argues the agency’s in-house court system is unconstitutional because it denies the company a “constitutional right to trial by jury” and its board is too difficult for the president to remove.

With this lawsuit, SpaceX and Elon Musk are not only declaring war against the NLRB; they’re escalating an ongoing war with workers across the country as Musk himself and the wider tech industry seek to roll back what remains of already weak labor protections. And they’re not doing it alone. The arguments used by SpaceX closely mimic an ongoing effort by the Federalist Society to have the NLRB (along with other key federal agencies) declared unconstitutional, further decreasing the leverage workers can wield against their employers.

Silicon Valley is a major threat

Gig companies carved workers out of employment status. Amazon rolled out AI surveillance and brought in the Pinkertons to crush union drives. Now Elon Musk is teaming up with powerful libertarian advocacy groups that seek to dismantle the limited accountability that remains when lords like himself trample over the rights of workers. This is just one of the consequences of not holding the tech industry and its titans to account before they gained the power they have today. If SpaceX and Musk are successful, it would have terrible ramifications.

For years, Silicon Valley told the public they were building a different form of capitalism that was nothing like the old guard of companies they were challenging. Many in media and government ate it up, and sold that story to the public. But now that the Davids are the new Goliaths, it’s become quite clear that corporate overlords are all the same — the more power they wield, the bigger a threat they become. The titans of the tech industry are a threat to us all.