Campus & Community

How Tesla’s Arrival in Germany Could Set Off a Labor Showdown

On March 22, Tesla opened its new Gigafactory outside Berlin. The plant will give the company a base to sell to European customers and expand its dominance in the electric car market. But it will also mean contending with an unfamiliar obstacle: a powerful labor union, namely the German autoworkers union IG Metall.

In the United States, Tesla spent years blocking unions, using threats and firings to bring workers to heel, and has never given workers a voice in management. But Germany is home to “co-determination”: large companies there are run jointly by labor and management, who serve together on boards that set company strategy and finances. On the shop floor, workers approve operations in work councils, under mandates that give German workers far more rights and power than in the U.S.

“I’ve had to talk American corporate types off the ledge because American corporations don’t like to share decision-making,” says Lowell Turner, emeritus professor of international and comparative labor at Cornell University. “‘This guy from the work council thinks he runs the company! That’s communism!’ ‘No, that’s the German way,’ I tell them.’’

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