Tesla: UAW seeks to unionize car maker, battle expected with CEO Elon Musk

A production associate works in the body line for Tesla Model 3s at the Tesla factory in Fremont, California, on Tuesday, July 17, 2018. (Ray Chavez/Bay Area News Group/TNS)
A production associate works in the body line for Tesla Model 3s at the Tesla factory in Fremont, California, on Tuesday, July 17, 2018. (Ray Chavez/Bay Area News Group/TNS)

The United Auto Workers, freshly victorious against the Big Three U.S. auto companies, now has set its sights on Tesla.

The powerful labor union announced a campaign this week to unionize the pioneering electric car maker, and a dozen other non-unionized car companies, to boost wages, benefits and workers’ rights. It emerged this fall from six-week strikes at Ford, General Motors and Stellantis with deals to dramatically boost pay for many workers.

In its announcement this week, the UAW noted that Tesla CEO Elon Musk is the world’s richest man and the company’s “sales are booming, adding, “The question is, will Tesla workers get their fair share?”

Musk is openly anti-union and hostile toward the UAW, and remains embroiled in a legal case over a 2018 tweet suggesting workers would be stripped of stock options if they unionized. Tesla, which has an assembly plant with 22,000 workers in Fremont, did not respond to requests for comment on the union push or criticisms of the company.

UAW’s push to bring Tesla on board is “going to be a tough battle,” said labor expert William Gould, a Stanford Law School emeritus professor.

Many regulatory and legal actions over Tesla workers’ treatment have arisen in recent years, and journalists have reported dangerous working conditions. Last year, California’s civil rights regulator sued Tesla, accusing it of paying Black workers less, denying them advancements, and allowing them to be subjected to daily racist abuse. A 2018 exposé by the Center for Investigative Reporting asserted that “Tesla has failed to report some of its serious injuries on legally mandated reports, making the company’s injury numbers look better than they actually are.” Musk dismissed the report as propaganda.

In 2016, an investigation by this news organization and court documents revealed that at least 140 foreign workers on questionable business visas worked on the expansion of the Fremont plant for as little as $5 an hour. One worker, Gregor Lesnik, was later awarded $550,000 for back wages and injuries suffered in a three-story fall from the roof of a factory paint shop in May 2015, according to court records.

“You can see the way (Musk) has approached everything, health and safety, anti-discrimination — basically he seems to be thumbing his nose at authorities who have responsibilities for enforcement of our labor laws,” said Gould, whose latest book, “For Labor to Build Upon,” was published last year.

Tesla, which reported last year it had more than 100,000 workers globally, is valued at $750 billion in the stock market, and last year reported revenue of $81 billion and a profit of $21 billion.

Musk this week in a New York Times DealBook interview said, “ I disagree with the idea of unions,” claiming they create a “lords and peasants” relationship between factory workers and executives.

In 2017, disgruntled workers at the Fremont factory said they had reached out to the UAW because they were forced to work long hours for low pay under unsafe conditions.

When the UAW in 2018 was engaged in preliminary work to unionize Tesla, it drew attacks from Musk, and sparked a legal case that continues to this day. The CEO tweeted that he endorsed “ freedom to form a union … as well as freedom not to do so,” but he also claimed that the “ UAW has a track record of destroying productivity so a company can’t compete on world market.”

A comment in an earlier tweet that year saying nothing was stopping Fremont workers from unionizing, “ but why pay union dues and give up stock options for nothing?, ” led to a National Labor Relations Board order in 2021 to delete the tweet. Musk appealed to the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in New Orleans in 2021. In March of this year the appeals court ruled the tweet was an illegal threat and upheld the order, but in July the court said it would reconsider.

The UAW campaign to unionize Tesla and other auto companies comes at a crucial time, Gould said. Buoyed by its high-profile win at three companies, it is nevertheless “surrounded by all these non-union competitors” that enjoy the competitive advantage of operating without answering to organized workers, he said. If that advantage harms the Big Three in the market, their UAW workers will share the pain, Gould said. “They’ve got to organize the non-union employers who will put their members at a disadvantage otherwise,” Gould said.

Meanwhile, Tesla is facing labor unrest in Europe. In late October, 130 mechanics began a strike at a Tesla subsidiary in Sweden after the company said it would not recognize their labor union, CNN reported. In sympathy, postal workers began refusing to deliver Tesla license plates and mail to Tesla facilities, dock workers blocked deliveries of Teslas at Swedish ports and electricians stopped maintenance work for Tesla. Musk in a tweet on X, the social media platform he bought last year, called the postal workers’ action “insane.” His company late last month sued Sweden’s Transport Agency, which overseas license plate production, and postal company PostNord, the New York Times reported.

In October, German metal workers union IG Metall claimed more than 1,000 employees at Tesla’s Berlin factory had joined it over issues including “ blatant safety deficiencies and work accidents.” Tesla soon after raised wages at the plant, but denied any “connection between Tesla’s salary adjustments and union activities,” according to the Wall Street Journal.

Berkeley lawyer Bryan Schwartz, who is suing Tesla on behalf of hundreds of current and former workers alleging Tesla failed to stop anti-Black discrimination at the Fremont factory, said he believes the company has tolerated racism as a strategy to avoid unionization.

“They’re not stupid,” Schwartz said. “I honestly believe that the only way to explain how incredibly pervasive the racist harassment has been at the factory … is the company has obviously determined that they have an economic interest in keeping the workforce divided and in conflict.”

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