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Opening of Tesla's German plant near

by MELISSA EDDY THE NEW YORK TIMES | January 23, 2022 at 1:41 a.m.

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, regional leader for the IG Metall union, which represents autoworkers in Germany, said last week that a vote for 19 representatives to serve on the works council had been scheduled for Feb. 28.

Works councils, which are 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 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," Jorg Steinbach, Brandenburg's minister for the economy, said earlier this month. 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 1 in 6 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, Dietze said. That raises the prospect that a works council vote in February may not represent the workforce when full production begins.

"With a works council, the workforce is given a voice and can bring in and assert its interests," Dietze said last week. "In order to play this role, however, it is a prerequisite that a works council actually represents the workforce 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. 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 SUVs a year, has begun turning out cars, but they are prototypes that cannot be sold. Pending approval of the final steps, Brandenburg authorities granted the company the right to produce an additional 2,000 prototypes of its Model Y cars, after Tesla said 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 Musk that he would be making his way to Germany.

Last week, Musk told his followers on social media that he would be headed to Berlin in "mid Feb."

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