United Auto Workers president Bob King has said that the labor union is interested in organizing Tesla’s assembly plant in Fremont, California and that a group of workers at the site have set up an organizing committee for the UAW. That factory is where Tesla assembles the battery powered Model S. Tesla has prided itself in being different from Detroit and its headquarters’ location, the Silicon Valley, is not exactly a labor hotbed.
While under King the autoworkers’ union has been more collaborative than confrontational with automakers, should the UAW organize Tesla that would undoubtedly affect the corporate culture at the EV startup. “Elon [Musk]‘s attitude was always, ‘We’re going to Silicon Valley-ize the car business,’ ” Karl Brauer, with Kelley Blue Book told the SFGate.com. “If he goes union, he’s going to take a huge step toward falling in line with the industry that he used to make fun of.”
It’s a testy subject. Despite King’s comments, when contacted by the San Francisco Chronicle, the UAW’s public relations director would not comment. Neither would Tesla, nor many of their employees. For Musk’s part he seems ambivalent. When Tesla purchased the Fremont facility from Toyota (which had formerly operated it with General Motors as the New United Motor Manufacturing Inc. (Nummi) plant) Musk said, “on the question of the union, we’re neutral.” However, Tesla Motors’ last annual financial report listed possible union activity under business “risks”: “The mere fact that our labor force could be unionized may harm our reputation in the eyes of some investors and thereby negatively affect our stock price. Additionally, the unionization of our labor force could increase our employee costs and decrease our profitability, both of which could adversely affect our business, prospects, financial condition and results of operations.”
In August, King told WardsAuto that Musk had repeated his neutral position at a meeting with union representatives, but that other Tesla executives were less open to the idea of an organized labor force. Musk, King said, was “very open and said he would respect what the workers wanted. But his operating management has done the opposite.”
Tesla’s Fremont plant is the only remaining car assembly plant on the West Coast. When it was called NUMMI, it employed 4,700 workers, most recently building Tacoma pickups and Corolla sedans. Current employment is estimated to be about 2,000, many of who are experienced autoworkers, having worked at the facility under prior management.
Employee reviews of Tesla posted online mention a fast pace and long hours. That’s typical of many Silicon Valley startups, which typically focus more on engineering than manufacturing. While work hours are a traditional wedge issue that labor unions use to rally workers onto their side, the frenetic pace in Silicon Valley is part of the culture there. “Engineering lends itself to a different style of self-starters, independent-minded people, survival of the fittest,” said Art Pulaski, head of the California Labor Federation labor union. “Manufacturing is different.”