Business|As Tesla’s plant in Germany nears completion, a union raises concern.
BERLIN — Employees at Tesla’s new assembly plant outside Berlin will elect a works council next month, the latest indication that the factory could soon begin operation after months of setbacks and delays.
Elon Musk, Tesla’s chief executive, had hoped the facility, the company’s first assembly plant in Europe, would have been completed by the end of last year. But Germany’s cumbersome bureaucracy, combined with a flurry of lawsuits from local environmental groups, has pushed back the opening by several months.
Birgit Dietze, the regional leader for the IG Metall union, which represents autoworkers in Germany, said on Thursday that a vote for 19 representatives to serve on the works council had been scheduled for Feb. 28.
Works councils, committees that represent employees in helping to set factory policies, are standard in German companies. Although union members can serve on the councils, the bodies are not organized by or directly affiliated with the unions.
Members of the state government in Brandenburg, which has not yet granted final approval for the $7 billion plant, said earlier this month that all of the necessary paperwork had been received in late December and the process was in its final stages. They also indicated that settlement of a pending lawsuit over water use would not affect the timeline.
“We are on what we hope are the last steps as far as the whole issue of permits for the factory,” Jörg Steinbach, Brandenburg’s minister for the economy, said last week. But he declined to speculate exactly when the plant would receive its final approval to begin production.
IG Metall said it was concerned that the works council vote had been scheduled even though roughly only one in six of the estimated 12,000 people who are expected to work at the plant have been hired so far. Most companies hire managers and engineers first, before filling in the lower ranks of blue-collar workers, who will make up the majority of the workers, said Ms. Dietze. That raises the prospect that a works council vote in February may not represent the work force when full production begins.
“With a works council, the work force is given a voice and can bring in and assert its interests,” said Ms. Dietze on Thursday. “In order to play this role, however, it is a prerequisite that a works council actually represents the work force and that’s where it’s important to look closely at Tesla.”
Although Tesla has opposed unions at its plants in the United States, Germany has a strong tradition of unionization, and IG Metall recently opened an office near the plant and has been answering questions from workers and those applying for jobs. Ms. Dietze declined to say how many union members were already working at the facility, or whether they were among those running for positions on the works council.
In Germany, individual workers join unions and if enough of them do so, use their leverage to get employers to agree to a union contract, which is negotiated between workers and management for entire industries.
The plant, where Tesla expects to eventually produce 500,000 Model Y sport utility vehicles a year, has begun turning out cars, but they are prototypes that cannot be sold. Pending approval of the final steps, the Brandenburg authorities granted the company the right to produce an additional 2,000 prototypes of its Model Y cars, after Tesla said that its initial run of 250 of the electric vehicles revealed points in the production that needed additional fine-tuning.
Still, speculation in Germany about a possible opening date has been fueled by reports of the prototypes vehicle, optimism from government officials that a final approval is nearing, and word from Mr. Musk that he would be making his way to Germany.
Earlier this week, Mr. Musk told his followers on social media that he would be headed to Berlin in “mid Feb.”