Pioneering Female Leader of Germany's Largest Union Sets Sights on Tesla

Pioneering Female Leader of Germany's Largest Union Sets Sights on Tesla

Incoming IG Metall boss Christiane Benner is warning Elon Musk about efforts to avoid unionization at his factory near Berlin.

The incoming first female head of Germany’s most powerful labor union IG Metall is warning Elon Musk about efforts to avoid unionization at his Tesla Inc. factory near Berlin.

“You need to be careful. The rules of the game are different here,” said Christiane Benner, who is set to take the helm of the union on Monday at its general assembly in Frankfurt.

The warning is a shot across the bow for Musk, whose factory churns out the popular Model Y — Europe’s best-selling car earlier this year — and has so far refused to sign the kind of wage agreements that are standard in Germany, putting the company on a collision course with Benner.

IG Metall has the power to initiate walkouts at some of Germany’s biggest firms, including Airbus, Siemens, Volkswagen and other titans of industry. Wage negotiations for its 3.9 million workers are closely watched by European Central Bank due to their potential impact on inflation.

While Tesla's 12,000-employee plant is a key concern, Benner, speaking in an interview with Bloomberg News, outlined a broad set of worrying developments putting pressure on Germany's workers.

The current situation is marked by considerable turbulence," Benner remarked. "Adapting and acquiring new skills will be crucial."

IG Metall stands as the largest manufacturing union in Europe, representing workers in areas like automaking, steel production, and various other factories. The union collects roughly 500 million euros annually in membership fees and has a history of orchestrating strikes at some of Germany's most renowned companies. Given its extensive membership base, the organization wields significant political influence.

At 55 years old, Benner contends that German policymakers have been sluggish in addressing the country's structural challenges, potentially jeopardizing workers in sectors like automotive manufacturing, which employs approximately 800,000 individuals.

In both Germany and abroad, an increasing number of auto industry workers are demanding improved compensation and job stability as the industry shifts towards electric vehicles. The United Auto Workers union has initiated a significant strike against major players like General Motors, Ford, and Stellantis in the U.S., leading to production halts at multiple facilities. The concern is that EVs, requiring fewer components and labor to manufacture, may lead to job cuts and lower wages.

In Germany, mounting voter dissatisfaction has bolstered the ascent of the far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD), which Benner views as a challenge to the nation's endeavor to transform its manufacturing sector for a green economy. The AfD, which has gained traction in recent state elections in Bavaria and Hesse, opposes technologies like heat pumps, undermining efforts to entice investors and establish industrial hubs for producing these machines. Furthermore, its staunchly anti-immigrant stance threatens to exacerbate Germany's enduring labor shortage.

"People are in need of assurance. They require a comprehensive plan and tangible strategies. They depend on robust unions," Benner emphasized. "We perceive it as our duty to counteract this political fragmentation and polarization."

First woman to lead Germany's biggest union takes aim at Tesla

Christiane Benner's ascension within the predominantly male-dominated IG Metall is a notable achievement. Alongside Daniela Cavallo, the chief of Volkswagen's works council who spearheads the battle against significant cutbacks, it mirrors a broader transformation in Germany's traditionally male-dominated workers' leadership.

German regulations stipulate a 50 percent representation of employees on the supervisory boards of large corporations. Some have criticized this requirement for impeding timely restructuring in troubled firms like Volkswagen and Thyssenkrupp. However, Benner holds a different view.

"We have observed that when we vigorously advocate and present well-conceived plans to companies and governments, positive outcomes emerge," Benner remarked.

This is the message she aims to convey to Tesla, where over 1,000 employees gathered at the EV-maker's Gruenheide plant near Berlin earlier this month, donning stickers calling for "safe and fair work," as reported by IG Metall.

Union sources indicate that Tesla employees are raising concerns about subpar working conditions and safety risks, including excessive workloads due to staff shortages and overly ambitious production targets. Tesla responded by stating that local authorities conduct regular inspections at the plant and affirmed that safety measures are being adhered to, according to Reuters.

Benner hopes to sit down soon with the world's richest man.

"Elon, what's the problem?" Benner said. "I'm so friendly, I'll bring cookies."


--------This article is partly excerpted from BNN Bloomberg.

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