By on May 18, 2017

Tesla Factory California

In the face of what it describes as “a concerted and professional media push intended to raise questions about safety at Tesla,” the California electric automaker has attempted to counter an apparent unionization tactic.

In a May 14th blog post titled “Creating the Safest Car Factory in the World,” Tesla said it was contacted by numerous media sources claiming to have spoken with similar workers at its Fremont assembly plant. The automaker sees this as an attempt by both the United Auto Workers and Tesla employees intent on organizing the plant to use instances of workplace injury as an organizational tool.

This morning, the story Tesla was working to get ahead of landed in The Guardian.

In it, Fremont workers describe injuries suffered on the job and seeing co-workers carted off in ambulances after fainting. The incidents are painted as being the result of long working hours and a strict production schedule.

“I’ve seen people pass out, hit the floor like a pancake and smash their face open,” Jonathan Galescu, a Tesla production technician, told The Guardian. “They just send us to work around him while he’s still lying on the floor.”

Other workers provided their own stories from the production line, including Michael Sanchez, currently on disability leave due to two herniated discs in his neck. Sanchez and his employer disagree as to the cause. To the worker, the injury was from working on a vehicle suspended above him for years.

Tesla admits its recordable incident rate (TRIR) was above the industry average between 2013 and 2016, though it hasn’t released specific figures. This isn’t the first time the company has found itself on the defensive over employee conditions. In February, as the UAW campaign began in earnest, employee Jose Moran published a blog post detailing less-than-favorable conditions at the plant.

A year ago, Tesla announced it would begin paying a full wage to foreign subcontractors found to be working for just $5 an hour.

In its blog post, Tesla advised fans and would-be buyers: “Watch for these articles to downplay or ignore our actual 2017 safety data and to instead focus on a small number of complaints and anecdotes that are not representative of what is actually occurring in our factory of over 10,000 workers.”

To maintain production levels and survive as a company, the company claimed, “some Tesla employees have worked significant amounts of overtime.” This mention was placed in a historical context. Last year, the automaker added a third shift at Fremont, which it claims lowered average working time to 42 hours a week, cutting overtime hours by 60 percent as a result. An “Ergonomics Team” was brought on board in 2015.

Tesla claims its TRIR has dropped to 4.6 at the end of the first quarter of 2017, a figure 32-percent lower than the industry average of 6.7. The third shift and other factors “led to a 52% reduction in lost time incidents and a 30% reduction in recordable incidents from the first quarter of 2016 to the first quarter of 2017,” it claims.

Speaking to The Guardian, Tesla CEO Elon Musk was unusually candid about his perception of the company, and its finances.

“It’s incredibly hurtful, and, I think, false for anyone to claim that I don’t care,” said Musk, adding that his desk was purposely situated “in the worst place in the factory, the most painful place,” rather than “some comfortable corner office.”

Claiming his company’s sky-high market valuation “is higher than we have any right to deserve,” Musk stated, “We’re a money-losing company. 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. It’s just a question of how much money we lose. And how do we survive? How do we not die and have everyone lose their jobs?”

Many of the workers interviewed for the story shared Musk’s enthusiasm for an electric-powered driving future, sustainability, and other trappings of the EV sphere. Still, Tesla’s quasi mea culpa isn’t likely to water down efforts to unionize the plant — something Musk would desperately like to avoid. Production of the affordable Model 3, which should begin in a couple of months, exists on a very strict timeline.

With Model 3 orders in the high 300,000 range and the company still only flirting with profitability, Musk likely feels he can’t afford to have labor action slow down the production process.

Tesla’s blog post signed off with a swipe against the gathering crowd of unionists.

“The alternative is to stop improving and to instead do what the rest of the industry, including the UAW, has always done,” the automaker said. “But being industry average would make our safety 32% worse.”

[Image: Maurizio Pesce/Flickr (CC BY 2.0)]

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8 Comments on “Tesla Releases Statement on Worker Safety Days Before Scathing Report...”

  • avatar
    tod stiles

    I don’t quite know what to make of Musk. He is clearly a visionary in many ways. He also knows how to surround himself with people who have the technical know-how to bring these ideas to fruition.

    It seems to me that the whole “let’s start a company to make electric cars” thing has gotten away from him. Tesla has run right into the same problems as some other automakers. A motivated work force that’s short changed and marginalized. Then resentment, anger etc. and labor problems. A lot of this is the result of corporate governance rules (or lack of in many ways) that tend to drive a wedge between management and workers.

    • 0 avatar

      The only thing Musk is visionary at is exploiting government tax incentives and showmanship to drive speculative investment.

      • 0 avatar

        That’s not all. He invested in somebody else’s idea for an electric sports car using laptop batteries, and muscled the guy out the door when it worked, calling himself the “founder”. Even his brilliant engineers needed help from Detroit engineers to modify the underpinnings of the Model S to make it more mass-producible, and modify the steering and suspension to make it driveable. You’ll never hear him talk about that.

  • avatar

    Given the general uptrend in the economy, I’m a bit surprised that Tesla doesn’t see a lot of their overworked serfs bailing out for better (easier) jobs. Don’t their hourly troops make just a couple bucks an hour above the lush California min wage?

    This certainly doesn’t appear like Michigan/Ohio/Indiana in the old days where the UAW slots paid well above what most run of the mill college grads made.

  • avatar

    Typical Musk. This guy is a dirt bag

  • avatar

    Musk’s vision is to change the world, even if a few people are made less than whole in the process. It’s just not a priority for him – he knows that extraordinary things require extraordinary efforts. His statements about safety and work-life balance are basically lip service to keep the unions and government entities off his back.

    I guess history will judge if this is a good thing or a bad thing. Personally, 70+ hour weeks are one of the last things I’d like to deal with.

  • avatar

    Workplace safety is a legitimate – the classic even – organizational tool. Unions played (and play) a key role in bringing about safer workplaces. Having worked in both a unionized and non-unionized environment, I certainly appreciated having the union behind me when I was told to do something that wasn’t completely thought-out from a safety standpoint.

    • 0 avatar

      “The alternative is to stop improving and to instead do what the rest of the industry, including the UAW, has always done,” the automaker said. “But being industry average would make our safety 32% worse.”

      Unions also keep dangerous impaired people on the work site, whether it be a production line or a school.

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