Elon Musk May Be a “Visionary,” But His Vision Doesn’t Seem To Include Unions

Michael Arria

Billionaire Elon Musk, chief executive officer of Tesla Motors Inc., listens during the StartmeupHK Venture Forum in Hong Kong, China, on Tuesday, Jan. 26, 2016. (Justin Chin/Bloomberg via Getty Images)

Tes­la CEO Elon Musk has been mak­ing more head­lines than usu­al late­ly. Short­ly after the busi­ness mag­nate claimed he had received gov­ern­men­tal approval to build a hyper­loop from New York to Wash­ing­ton, D.C., he got into a pub­lic argu­ment with Face­book CEO Mark Zucker­berg about the future of arti­fi­cial intel­li­gence. Musk also recent­ly made com­ments regard­ing the pro­duc­tion of Tesla’s new Mod­el 3, a bat­tery-elec­tric sedan. We’re going to go through at least six months of man­u­fac­tur­ing hell,” he told journalists.

It’s hard to know exact­ly what con­sti­tutes man­u­fac­tur­ing hell,” but it might also be dif­fi­cult to ever find out. That’s because, since last Novem­ber, Tes­la has required employ­ees to sign con­fi­den­tial­i­ty agree­ments which pre­vent them from dis­cussing work­place con­di­tions. This pol­i­cy has faced increased crit­i­cism since Feb­ru­ary, as work­ers at Tesla’s Fre­mont, Calif. plant have expressed con­cern over wages, safe­ty and their right to union­ize. They have reached out to the Unit­ed Auto­mo­bile, Aero­space and Agri­cul­tur­al Imple­ment Work­ers of Amer­i­ca (UAW) union, which is now intervening.

Last week, some of those work­ers made spe­cif­ic demands. A group called Tes­la Work­ers’ Orga­niz­ing Com­mit­tee sent a let­ter to the company’s board mem­bers seek­ing safe­ty improve­ments and a clear­er pro­mo­tion pol­i­cy. The let­ter cites 2015 data from the Bureau of Labor Sta­tis­tics, the last full year for which such infor­ma­tion is avail­able. For that year, data from the Bureau of Labor Sta­tis­tics indi­cates that our injury rate was high­er than that of sawmills and slaugh­ter hous­es. Acci­dents hap­pen every day,” reads the let­ter. The com­mit­tee also addressed Tesla’s resis­tance to work­place orga­niz­ing: We should be free to speak out and to orga­nize togeth­er to the ben­e­fit of Tes­la and all of our work­ers. When we have raised this with man­age­ment we have been met with anti-union rhetoric and action.”

Atten­tion was orig­i­nal­ly drawn to the factory’s orga­niz­ing fight after Tes­la employ­ee Jose Moran pub­lished a Medi­um post on Feb­ru­ary 9. Moran rais­es safe­ty con­cerns, writ­ing that, a few months ago, six of the eight peo­ple on his work team were on leave due to work­place injuries. He also breaks down prob­lems with the factory’s wages. Accord­ing to Moran, work­ers at the Tes­la fac­to­ry make between $17 and $21 in Alame­da coun­ty, an area where the liv­ing wage is more than $28 an hour. Moran wrote that some of his cowork­ers make a two-hour com­mute to work because they can’t afford to live near the factory.

Tesla’s Pro­duc­tion Asso­ciates are build­ing the future: They are doing the hard work to build the elec­tric cars and bat­tery packs that are nec­es­sary to reduce car­bon emis­sions. But they are paid sig­nif­i­cant­ly below the liv­ing wage for one adult and one child in our com­mu­ni­ty,” Maria Noël Fer­nan­dez, cam­paign direc­tor of the local work­er advo­ca­cy group Sil­i­con Val­ley Ris­ing, told In These Times via email. We believe that green jobs should be good jobs, and that they have a right to orga­nize and advo­cate for them­selves and their families.”

The day after Moran pub­lished his post, employ­ees passed out lit­er­a­ture con­tain­ing the piece dur­ing a shift change at the fac­to­ry. Accord­ing to an unfair labor prac­tice charge with the Nation­al Labor Rela­tions Board (NLRB) made by work­ers, and obtained by Cap­i­tal and Main, this prompt­ed man­age­ment to sched­ule a meet­ing where work­ers were told they couldn’t pass out infor­ma­tion unless it was pre-approved by the employ­er. The same NLRB charge accus­es Tes­la of ille­gal sur­veil­lance and intimidation.

Moran’s piece, and the sub­se­quent accu­sa­tions, were tak­en seri­ous­ly enough to be addressed by Elon Musk direct­ly. In an email to employ­ees, obtained by Buz­zfeed, Musk declared that safe­ty con­cerns ignored vast improve­ments estab­lished in 2017. Tes­la also put out a state­ment echo­ing Musk’s claims. The company’s data points to52 per­cent reduc­tion in lost time inci­dents and a 30 per­cent reduc­tion in record­able inci­dents dur­ing the company’s first quarter.

Musk promised a real­ly amaz­ing par­ty” for work­ers after the Mod­el 3 reached vol­ume pro­duc­tion. In addi­tion to the par­ty, the fac­to­ry would even­tu­al­ly include free frozen yogurt stands and a roller coast­er. It’s going to get crazy good,” he wrote. As for Moran, Musk claimed he was a paid UAW plant and that he had looked into his claims and dis­cov­ered they weren’t true. The UAW, he explained, does not share our mis­sion” and their true alle­giance is to the giant car com­pa­nies, where the mon­ey they take from employ­ees in dues is vast­ly more than they could ever make from Tesla.”

This wouldn’t be the last time Musk would use such lan­guage in regards to a union. Six months after Tes­la acquired Germany’s Grohmann Engi­neer­ing, Musk found him­self clash­ing with the country’s dom­i­nant met­al­work­ers’ union, IG Met­all. The union inter­vened to insist that Tes­la straight­en out a wage dis­crep­an­cy that had some work­ers claim­ing they were mak­ing 30 per­cent less than union rates. Musk sent a let­ter to Grohmann employ­ees offer­ing a one-time bonus — an extra 150 Euros a month — and Tes­la shares instead of a pay increas­es that the employ­ees desire. I do not believe IG Met­all shares our mis­sion,” reads the letter.

We’re a mon­ey-los­ing com­pa­ny,” Musk told The Guardian in May. This is not some sit­u­a­tion where, for exam­ple, we are just greedy cap­i­tal­ists who decid­ed to skimp on safe­ty in order to have more prof­its and div­i­dends and that kind of thing.” Two months after that inter­view, Auto­mo­tive News report­ed that Musk had been the high­est paid auto exec­u­tive of 2016, exer­cis­ing stock options worth $1.34 bil­lion. Musk’s incred­i­ble eco­nom­ic suc­cess hasn’t exact­ly been gen­er­at­ed via an unfet­tered free mar­ket. Accord­ing to data com­piled by the Los Ange­les Times in 2015, Musk’s com­pa­nies have ben­e­fit­ed from bil­lions in gov­ern­ment subsidies.

Whether or not Tesla’s board mem­bers are recep­tive to employ­ee demands, it seems clear that the work­ers’ strug­gle is not going away any­time soon.

Michael Arria is the U.S. cor­re­spon­dent for Mon­doweiss. Fol­low him on Twit­ter: @michaelarria.
Subscribe and Save 66%

Less than $1.67 an issue