Tesla Workers Announced a Union Drive. The Next Day They Were Fired.

More than 30 workers at a Tesla facility in New York were fired after going public with a union campaign. It’s the latest in a long line of alleged labor abuses by CEO Elon Musk.

Jeff Schuhrke

Tesla CEO Elon Musk at Tesla's "Gigafactory" on March 22, 2022 in Gruenheide, Germany. (Photo by PATRICK PLEUL/POOL/AFP via Getty Images)

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In what appears to be a swift reprisal, more than 30 employees at a Tesla gigafactory in Buffalo, New York were fired on Wednesday — just one day after the workers publicly announced their intent to unionize. In a complaint with the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB), workers allege that the firings were in retaliation for union activity and to discourage union activity.”

I feel blind-sided,” said Arian Beck, one of the fired workers who is supporting the union campaign. I got Covid and was out of the office, then I had to take a bereavement leave. I returned to work, was told I was exceeding expectations and then Wednesday came along.”

Calling themselves Tesla Workers United, the workers are partnering with the SEIU-affiliated Workers United — the same union that has won NLRB-supervised elections at nearly 300 Starbucks stores since December 2021, a campaign that also began in Buffalo.

Headed by multi-billionaire Elon Musk, Tesla is the only entirely non-union major automaker in the United States. On the same day as the firings in Buffalo, Musk revealed that he gave nearly $2 billion of his own Tesla stock to charities last year. 

These firings are unacceptable,” Tesla Workers United said in a press release. For our CEO, Elon Musk, to fire 30 workers and announce his $2 billion charity donation on the same day is despicable. We stand as one.”

In the press release, the union said workers at the gigafactory also received an email from the company on Wednesday night announcing a new policy prohibiting them from recording workplace meetings without all participants’ permission. At Starbucks and other companies, pro-union workers have caught managers making illegal threats or telling lies by recording them. 

This [new] policy violates federal labor law and also flouts New York’s one-party consent law to record conversations,” Tesla Workers United said. 

Tesla, which closed its public relations department in 2020, did not respond to a request for comment on the firings. An email sent to the company’s North American press contact bounced back, and other attempts to reach a representative went unanswered. 

In a statement posted on Tesla’s website, the company denied what it calls the union’s false allegations” and claims the Buffalo terminations were the result of a routine performance review.

The impacted employees were identified on February 3, 2023, which was well before the union campaign was announced. We became aware of organizing activities approximately 10 days later,” Tesla said in the statement. We learned in hindsight that one out of the 27 impacted employees officially identified as part of the union campaign. This exercise pre-dated any union campaign.”

Musk’s anti-labor record

Wednesday’s firings in Buffalo add to a long record of both alleged and documented labor abuses for Musk and his companies.

In 2017, Tesla workers at the company’s factory in Fremont, California began organizing with the United Auto Workers (UAW). Musk responded by publicly smearing one of the pro-union employees as a paid agitator” and promising the factory workers free frozen yogurt.

Since then, the NLRB has ruled that Tesla committed multiple unfair labor practices at the Fremont factory, including restricting workers from wearing union T-shirts and a tweet by Musk warning that employees would lose their stock options if they unionized.

To date, the UAW has not put forward plans for a union representation election.

In late 2018, the United Steelworkers and International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers announced a joint campaign to organize the Buffalo facility, but that effort similarly has not resulted in plans for a union representation election.

Tesla is facing at least ten lawsuits from former workers alleging rampant racism and sexual harassment, including at the Fremont factory, where workers have also reported more safety violations than at slaughterhouses and sawmills.

At Tesla’s Berlin factory, the German trade union IG Metall has also expressed concerns about bad working conditions, including grueling hours and company surveillance. 

Meanwhile, Musk is facing a host of controversies with employees at his other companies. Last November, eight former SpaceX workers filed a lawsuit alleging they were illegally fired as retaliation for writing an open letter criticizing the billionaire. 

After taking over Twitter last fall, Musk laid off thousands of employees, including unionized janitors at the company’s headquarters, while instructing remaining staff to work 80 hours a week. As recently as last week, the CEO reportedly fired a Twitter engineer amid frustration that Musk’s own account on the social media site was not receiving enough attention.

Neither Tesla nor Musk provided comment on allegations of labor violations.

Buffalo union drive

Tesla’s Buffalo gigafactory, which currently employs about 1,900 workers, opened in 2017 with help from a $950 million subsidy from New York state. The facility originally made solar panels and power storage products, but now produces equipment for electric vehicle Superchargers. 

The union campaign is led by a group of the gigafactory’s software analysts who work on the company’s Autopilot program for Tesla’s self-driving” cars. There are around 800 Autopilot analysts employed at the facility.

People are tired of being treated like robots,” Al Celli, one of the worker organizers, told Bloomberg. We have such a rush to get things done that I don’t know if it’s actually being well thought out.”

Another worker, Nick Piazza, told The Buffalo News that the organizing campaign was accelerated when management made employees use their paid time off for not coming into work during the blizzard that rocked western New York over the Christmas holiday — a historic storm that has been blamed for 47 deaths.

The pro-union workers began leafleting the Buffalo gigafactory on Valentine’s Day to organize their coworkers while calling on management to remain neutral in the union drive by adhering to fair election principles. But the next day, more than 30 workers were fired.

Despite the apparent retaliation, Tesla Workers United still hopes to achieve a union breakthrough in Buffalo, just as Starbucks Workers United did there a little over a year ago.

We’re angry. This won’t slow us down. This won’t stop us,” Sara Costantino, a current Tesla employee and organizing committee member, told the Associated Press. They want us to be scared, but I think they just started a stampede. We can do this. But I believe we will do this.”

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Jeff Schuhrke is a labor historian, educator, journalist and union activist who teaches at the Harry Van Arsdale Jr. School of Labor Studies, SUNY Empire State University in New York City. He has been an In These Times contributor since 2013. Follow him on Twitter @JeffSchuhrke.

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