Tesla and UAW Assume Battle Stations

Matt Posky
by Matt Posky
tesla and uaw assume battle stations

The United Automobile Workers have had its eyes on Tesla Motors for years. However, it wasn’t until the start of 2017 when unionization efforts at the automaker’s Fremont, California factory really started ramping up. Following complaints that the automaker failed to ensure effective safety measures, Tesla employee Jose Moran published a blog post that openly criticized the company for overworking its staff in unsafe conditions. Moran also said payment was insufficient and promotions were unfair — suggesting unionization was the only way to protect employees.

Soon afterwards, the UAW began filing a slew of complaints to the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) while Tesla was confronted with racial discrimination lawsuits. Widespread reports of worksite injuries also surfaced. The California Department of Industrial Relations saw over 180 Tesla employees applying for compensation as a result of serious injuries between 2012 and 2017. Now, the UAW is accusing the automaker of intimidating pro-union employees and terminating those it could not sway.

The union used a similar strategy against Nissan last year, claiming it conducted one of the “ nastiest anti-union campaigns in the modern history.” Workers at Nissan’s Canton, Mississippi assembly plant ultimately voted against joining the UAW by a wide margin.

Still, Tesla operates in a different part of the country and its workforce is arguably more likely to support unionization. The Southern U.S. opposes organized labor, for the most part — but California is a very different animal.

“This is the beginning of something,” Harley Shaiken, a labor professor at the University of California, Berkeley, told Automotive News. “They’re provoking ongoing conflict with a significant number of workers at a point where Tesla needs it the least … You’ve got a turning point here,” Shaiken continued. “Tesla, which has been so innovative in so many ways, seems to be reverting to 1930s-style union avoidance in the way it’s dealing with the UAW.”

Tesla fired 700 workers last October. Officially, it was the result of lackluster performance reviews. But some allege it was done to obliterate union support through the removal of problem employees.

Tesla says these claims are false, while remaining openly critical of the UAW’s attempts to gain power at its facilities. “It’s worth remembering that each year, roughly 20,000 [unfair labor practice complaints] are filed with the NLRB by unions like the UAW as an organizing tactic,” the company said in a statement.

Tesla CEO Elon Musk has also accused the UAW of “disingenuous” tactics while doing everything in his power to convince the media and his staff that the factory is a safe and enjoyable place of employment. He has promised ice cream and a roller coaster, promised to undertake dangerous tasks to ensure their safety, and reminded employees that stock grants mean they make more than most employees at other auto plants.

However, the company’s death stroke against unionization could be the widespread automation of its factories. Tesla wants the most robo-centric facilities in the world, but it’s not there yet. Furthermore, having a disgruntled workforce attempting to organize against it couldn’t have come at a less opportune moment. The automaker needs to pull out the stops to ensure it hits production goals (after repeatedly pushing them back).

“The last thing Tesla needs is a protracted fight with its own workers and a union organizing campaign,” Shaiken said. “To profitably manufacture electric cars, they’re going to need a highly motivated workforce.”

Whether the UAW gains ground in Fremont remains to be seen. High turnover rates at the factory make it difficult to organize its staff and the NLRB under the Trump administration may be less sympathetic to union causes than it was during the Obama years. The UAW will also elect a new president in June who may or may not see Tesla as a lost cause. There is a lot of uncertainty over the future but the present seems to show the union adding pressure in California.

[Image: Tesla Motors]

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  • Turf3 Turf3 on Mar 20, 2018

    Wow, it's actually difficult to mass produce cars with high quality and safety in the factory! Who would have guessed that those crusty old farts in the automotive industry, that all the computer-weenies have been saying are obsolete, might actually know something the computer jockeys don't? There's a world of difference between building a few thousand hand-assembled CEO toys that don't actually need to function reliably, and building a few hundred thousand cars that have to compete against products like those from Toyota, Honda, and Buick. I know the manufacturing-haters will dispute this, but MANUFACTURING MATTERS.

    • Carlson Fan Carlson Fan on Mar 20, 2018

      "I know the manufacturing-haters will dispute this, but MANUFACTURING MATTERS." Right on! Tesla you need to be a world class manufacturing company first to compete in todays automotive playing field. The car company part comes second! Sorry I don't make the rules that's just the way t is

  • Conslaw Conslaw on Mar 20, 2018

    IIRC, when NUMMI was running the plant for GM and Toyota, they had a unique collective bargaining agreement that was more flexible than the standard GM deal. NUMMI turned out top quality products on a consistent basis.

  • Nrd515 I bought an '88 S10 Blazer with the 4.3. We had it 4 years and put just about 48K on it with a bunch of trips to Nebraska and S. Dakota to see relatives. It had a couple of minor issues when new, a piece of trim fell off the first day, and it had a seriously big oil leak soon after we got it. The amazinly tiny starter failed at about 40K, it was fixed under some sort of secret warranty and we got a new Silverado as a loaner. Other than that, and a couple of tires that blew when I ran over some junk on the road, it was a rock. I hated the dash instrumentation, and being built like a gorilla, it was about an inch and a half too narrow for my giant shoulders, but it drove fine, and was my second most trouble free vehicle ever, only beaten by my '82 K5 Blazer, which had zero issues for nearly 50K miles. We sold the S10 to a friend, who had it over 20 years and over 400,000 miles on the original short block! It had a couple of transmissions, a couple of valve jobs, a rear end rebuild at 300K, was stolen and vandalized twice, cut open like a tin can when a diabetic truck driver passed out(We were all impressed at the lack of rust inside the rear quarters at almost 10 years old, and it just went on and on. Ziebart did a good job on that Blazer. All three of his sons learned to drive in it, and it was only sent to the boneyard when the area above the windshield had rusted to the point it was like taking a shower when it rained. He now has a Jeep that he's put a ton of money into. He says he misses the S10's reliablity a lot these days, the Jeep is in the shop a lot.
  • Jeff S Most densely populated areas have emission testing and removing catalytic converters and altering pollution devices will cause your vehicle to fail emission testing which could effect renewing license plates. In less populated areas where emission testing is not done there would probably not be any legal consequences and the converter could either be removed or gutted both without having to buy specific parts for bypassing emissions. Tampering with emission systems would make it harder to resell a vehicle but if you plan on keeping the vehicle and literally running it till the wheels fall off there is not much that can be done if there is no emission testing. I did have a cat removed on a car long before mandatory emission testing and it did get better mpgs and it ran better. Also had a cat gutted on my S-10 which was close to 20 years old which increased performance and efficiency but that was in a state that did not require emission testing just that reformulated gas be sold during the Summer months. I would probably not do it again because after market converters are not that expensive on older S-10s compared to many of the newer vehicles. On newer vehicles it can effect other systems that are related to the operating and the running of the vehicle. A little harder to defeat pollution devices on newer vehicles with all the systems run by microprocessors but if someone wants to do it they can. This law could be addressing the modified diesels that are made into coal rollers just as much as the gasoline powered vehicles with cats. You probably will still be able to buy equipment that would modify the performance of a vehicles as long as the emission equipment is not altered.
  • ToolGuy I wonder if Vin Diesel requires DEF.(Does he have issues with Sulfur in concentrations above 15ppm?)
  • ToolGuy Presented for discussion: https://xroads.virginia.edu/~Hyper2/thoreau/civil.html
  • Kevin Ford can do what it's always done. Offer buyouts to retirement age employees, and transfers to operating facilities to those who aren't retirement age. Plus, the transition to electric isn't going to be a finger snap one time event. It's going to occur over a few model years. What's a more interesting question is: Where will today's youth find jobs in the auto industry given the lower employment levels?