Tesla, trade unions and a tyrannosaur

The general day of action in January showed that unions can bring the public sector to a near standstill

A Tesla vehicle being charged
The Tesla dispute with Swedish unions underlines how different the industrial relations landscape is here by comparison

I’ve been watching the Tesla versus Swedish unions dispute with great interest over the last number of months and I am struck by how different the industrial relations landscape is here by comparison.

We operate a system that could best be described as “legally induced voluntarism” whereupon employers and unions tip-toe their way through the minefield of legal requirements, code obligations and the odd collective agreement.

The very symbolic general day of action that we went through on January 18 is a timely reminder that when push comes to shove the trade union movement can flex its considerable muscle and bring the public sector to a near complete standstill.

But what will the lesson be? That it takes a genuine crisis (political, financial, other) before such a co-ordinated day of action can take place or that trade unions have moved on to a new level and are looking to their Nordic brothers and sisters for inspiration.

Pending legislation in the south means that there will be an obligation to promote collective bargaining towards a coverage of 80% and this is likely to make sectoral bargaining the hot topic of 2024 and 2025. Allied to this is the amount of workers actually in a union and whether this is likely to increase in tandem with the EU directive requirements especially given that figures between 25%-35% suggest there is a long way to go.

When north and south are compared they represent a mishmash of industrial relations systems with a dash of Europe here and a dollop of America there, resulting in dish that is neither savoury nor sweet. What the future holds in terms of both industrial relations legislation and culture is an unknown quantity as the GB pursue what is largely perceived as a union-hostile legislative agenda which may well be overturned by a new Government.

Ireland seems to be led by EU Directive requirements as opposed to cultural reforms within industrial relations based on more formalised productive social partnerships. The future of the public sector pay agreement for the next number of years is being negotiated and as such the future of “Building Momentum” 2.0 remains an unknown quantity.

All the while Tesla, like the tyrannosaurus rex in Jurassic Park that “tests” the electric fence, keeps running into Swedish trade unions that keep it at bay for now.

Mark McAllister
Mark McAllister Mark McAllister

Globally trade unions are looking to see what happens in Sweden because if the unions lose it will be more than symbolic especially with every country that wrestles with its industrial relations system perhaps taking their cue from the outcome.

All of which leads to the inevitable question - where’s Jeff Goldblum when you need him?

  • Mark McAllister is director of employment relations services at the Labour Relations Agency (LRA) NI