In a first, Tesla workers demand union for better pay and job security

Tesla CEO Elon Musk and the EV maker's human resources chief did not respond to the workers' campaign. Tesla disbanded its press-relations team in 202
File photo of Tesla workers in orange vests outside its Gigafactory in Fremont, California. (REUTERS)
File photo of Tesla workers in orange vests outside its Gigafactory in Fremont, California.

Tesla Inc. workers in New York state are launching a unionization campaign, teeing up a potential first for the electric-vehicle maker and the latest labor challenge for Chief Executive Officer Elon Musk.

The employees, who label data for Tesla’s Autopilot technology at the company’s plant in Buffalo, New York, sent an email to Musk early Tuesday with their intent to unionize. Employees say they’re seeking better pay and job security alongside a reduction in production pressures that they say have been harmful to their health.

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Workers at the plant told Bloomberg News that Tesla monitors keystrokes to track how long employees spend per task and how much of the day they spend actively working. This leads some to avoid taking bathroom breaks, six employees said.

“People are tired of being treated like robots," said Al Celli, a member of the union’s organizing committee.

If successful, the union would be a first for Tesla, which unlike other leading automakers has successfully resisted unionization at its US factories.

This campaign also represents a new test for the embattled US labor movement, which has recently notched a series of victories at longtime non-union firms, including Inc., Apple Inc. and Starbucks Corp.

“Unionizing will further accelerate the world’s transition to sustainable energy because it will give us a voice in our workplace and in the goals we set for ourselves to accomplish," the letter to management said. It also urged the company to agree to a set of principles restricting anti-union tactics.

Musk and Tesla’s human resources chief did not respond to emailed inquiries. Tesla disbanded its press-relations team in 2020.

Tesla shares are up 4.2% as of 10:18 a.m. in New York, buoyed by a filing that billionaire George Soros’s firm significantly increased its shares in the company last quarter. The stock is up 65% this year to date after a momentous tumble through 2022.

‘I Want a Voice’

The Buffalo plant has more than 800 Autopilot analysts in non-engineering roles that contribute to Tesla’s automated-driving development, including by identifying objects in images its vehicles capture and helping its systems recognize them on the road, according to the union. They’re hired at a starting pay of around $19 per hour.

In addition to increased pay and job security, the employees said they aim to secure a say in workplace decision-making, and to curb monitoring, metrics and production pressure.

“We have such a rush to get things done that I don’t know if it’s actually being well thought out," Celli said. “It’s just, ‘Let’s get this out as fast as we can.’"

Musk has talked about automating Autopilot analysts’ roles. “The Holy Grail is auto labeling," he said during a quarterly earnings call in April 2021. “The trainers train the training system and then the system auto-labels the data and then the human labelers just need to look at the labeling to confirm that it is correct and perhaps make edits."

Tesla dismissed hundreds of workers performing these jobs in California last year, Bloomberg reported in June.

Workers plan to circulate Valentine-themed leaflets at the plant on Tuesday reading “Roses are red / violets are blue / forming a union starts with you," with links to a website where employees can sign union cards.

The Tesla employees are organizing with the Service Employees International Union affiliate Workers United, which has successfully unionized hundreds of Starbucks cafes across the US since December 2021, starting with a store in Buffalo about six miles from the Tesla plant. Along with the Autopilot workers, the union said it is working to organize the roughly 1,000 manufacturing employees at the Tesla facility.

Tesla is “another example of workers showing that there is no such thing as an unorganizable workplace," said Jaz Brisack, a Workers United organizer and architect of the Starbucks campaign who is helping spearhead the new organizing effort at Tesla.

“The narrative on unions has shifted thanks to Starbucks and other companies doing it first," especially for Gen Z workers who make up a large share of the Autopilot staff, said employee Keenan Lasch.

Under US law, employers have the option to voluntarily recognize a union if the majority of workers sign up; otherwise, workers can petition the US National Labor Relations Board to hold an election, and if a union gets the majority of the votes, the employer is legally required to collectively bargain with the group.

Workers at the plant have been discussing unionization informally for several months on a Discord server, and said they began building an organizing committee in the fall after the company shut down an internal chat channel where employees aired grievances about issues such as the handling of snow days.

“I want a voice with my company — we don’t really have one," said Sara Costantino, an employee at the Buffalo plant. “The voice we did have, they took away."

An Uphill Battle

Prior unionization efforts at Tesla have struggled to gain traction. In 2017, staff at the company’s Fremont, California, factory unveiled a campaign with the United Auto Workers, and in 2018, the United Steelworkers and the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers announced an effort to organize in Buffalo; neither ended up petitioning for a unionization vote.

A bipartisan group of US labor board members ruled in 2021 that Tesla repeatedly violated federal law in Fremont, including by “coercively interrogating" union supporters and firing one because of his activism. Tesla has denied wrongdoing and is appealing that ruling.

“The example of Tesla is they can continue to break the law and put a chill over the workplace," Cindy Estrada, who until recently was the UAW’s vice president overseeing organizing, said in November.

In tweets last year, Musk wrote that “The degree to which the unions control the Dems is insane," and “A union is just another corporation." In a 2018 tweet, he wrote that there was “Nothing stopping Tesla team at our car plant from voting union" in California. “But why pay union dues & give up stock options for nothing?"

Lasch, the Tesla Autopilot analyst, said he hopes current public scrutiny on the company would help deter it from union-busting. “Any kind of retaliation would only ever make them look bad, and it’s not something they can really afford to do right now."

The new Tesla union drive follows a series of workplace controversies at Musk’s other companies. Workers at Space Exploration Technologies Corp. filed federal complaints last year alleging they were illegally retaliated against for working on an open letter criticizing Musk. At Twitter Inc., which Musk bought last year, workers filed class-action lawsuits, labor-board complaints and arbitration claims related to Musk’s mass-layoff of roughly half of the social media company’s employees.

The Buffalo Tesla workers say their campaign isn’t about any personal beef with their CEO. “I have nothing against the guy," said employee Will Hance. “I just want the ability to have a say in my workplace."

First Published Date: 15 Feb 2023, 08:48 AM IST

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