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Germany: Tesla factory missing 65,000 coffee mugs

July 11, 2024

The cups were one of many contentious items on the agenda at a recent staff meeting as some workers and management faced off against the IG Metall union.

The Tesla factory in Germany
The Tesla factory is around 300 hectares and is set to expand by 170 hectaresImage: Patrick Pleul/dpa/picture alliance

When Tesla plant manager Andre Thierig took the podium toward the end of a rowdy staff meeting, Germany's Handelsblatt newspaper reported, he did not mention the bitter conflict between the workers' council and the IG Metall union that had dominated discussion until then.

"I'm just going to give you a figure," Thierig said at the Tesla factory, which employs some 12,000 people in a sprawling complex southeast of Berlin. "We've bought 65,000 coffee mugs since we started production here. 65.000! Statistically speaking, each of you already has five Ikea coffee cups at home.

"I'm really tired of approving orders to buy more coffee cups," he said to laughter and applause, promising there would be no cutlery in break rooms if the thefts didn't stop.

Environmental and safety concerns

Even before the tens of thousands of purloined cups, and the most recent workers' council elections, Tesla's Gigafactory in the Grünheide, in the state of Brandenburg, has been a center of controversy.

Almost immediately after Germany beat out bids by at least eight other EU countries to host Tesla's first European factory in 2019, criticism began to mount about the environmental toll of constructing the factory. This included clearing hundreds of hectares of forest and concerns of groundwater contamination.

Soon after the beginning of production in 2022, German magazine Stern published an expose alleging serious violations of worker safety and health regulations as well as environmental laws. The report found that the Tesla plant had registered three times as many emergencies as a similar Audi plant in the city of Ingolstadt.

In 2024, the factory was the site of environmental protests against a planned expansion of the plant, which was finally given the go-ahead after a protracted political battle over the plans.

Battling Tesla's Gigafactory

Layoffs spark factory in-fighting

More recently, a push from Tesla CEO Elon Musk for factories worldwide to reduce their workforces by 10% have resulted in layoffs of many temporary and part-time employees, and called into question how much the factory is going to boost Germany's economy in the long run as was promised.

Although the Grünheide plant only reduced staff by about 2%, Works' Council member Uwe Fischer told Handelsblatt that there was "obvious pressure" on employees to take what was billed as an "attractive" voluntary redundancy offer.

According to IG Metall union secretary Jannes Bojert, Tesla workers are facing extreme pressure, bullying and frustration over the number of safety accidents at the plant.

This was countered at the staff meeting by Michaela Schmitz, the recently reelected leader of the Worker's Council, who believes the union is exerting undue influence on its members to agitate within the workforce. 

"Nobody is controlling anyone," the union responded. Bojert, in turn, accused Musk, management and other employees of stirring up anti-union sentiment that he described as "unconstitutional."

He described a strike as a "last resort", but not out of the question given the current climate at the factory.

Edited by: Sean Sinico 

While you're here: Every Tuesday, DW editors round up what is happening in German politics and society. You can sign up here for the weekly email newsletter Berlin Briefing.

Elizabeth Schumacher
Elizabeth Schumacher Elizabeth Schumacher reports on gender equity, immigration, poverty and education in Germany.