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A Unionized Tesla Workforce Could Benefit All Parties

Allowing workers to join the United Auto Workers would benefit not only employees but the company itself.

Today, all political and all age cohorts hold record or near-record positive views favoring labor over big business. The steady rise in public support for labor and concurrent declining support for big business suggests a transformational shift in employer/employee relations. A unionized Tesla workforce right now could benefit Tesla as it would follow a shift in public opinion in favor of organized labor.

As someone who self-financed my own college education through to a doctorate, I experienced firsthand the vagaries of being a restaurant worker. I remember walking into the kitchen and ducking as a French knife flew across my field of vision. I heard constant tirades and slurs. My co-workers and I stood on our feet, hour after hour, without a break. We were paid below minimum wage during periods when no tipping customers were present. Health insurance or vacation time? Advanced notice of schedule? Sick days? Not for us as restaurant workers.

Post-higher education, I entered the teacher workforce and spent 20 years as a secondary English educator. Supported by the Massachusetts Teachers Association and the National Education Association, I received pay increases based on performance reviews, years served, and education accumulated. Health benefits allowed my family to have security. Length of work days, descriptions of duties, protocols for everything from acceptable work behavior to emergencies — the union collaborated and negotiated with the school district as to what an appropriate workplace should be like.

Being part of a union changed my life. A unionized Tesla workforce is an opportunity that could improve Tesla, give a boost to thousands of staff, and help Tesla’s image and long-term vision.

Infrastructure Bill Draws upon Union Support

The Senate gave overwhelming bipartisan approval on August 10 to a $1 trillion infrastructure bill to rebuild the nation’s deteriorating roads and bridges and fund new climate resilience and broadband initiatives, delivering a key component of President Biden’s agenda. The vote, which was 69 to 30, was “uncommonly bipartisan,” according to the New York Times.

The bipartisan endorsement that included a nod to transportation should be instructive to Tesla. Joining US President Biden for the public face of the announcement were executives from General Motors, Ford, and Stellantis, who made broad and noble statements about their commitments to electric transportation. Electric vehicles, however, are only a merest hint of these companies’ US sales, with 1.5% for GM, 1.3% for Ford, and none yet for Stellantis so far this year.

Tesla, which manufactures only battery electric vehicles, was excluded from the White House photo shoots and conversations. “Yeah, seems odd that Tesla wasn’t invited,” responded Tesla CEO Elon Musk in a tweet responding to a CleanTechnica article about it.

That exclusion makes me sad.

Tesla has been nothing less than revolutionary as it has opened up the US and world to all-electric transportation. By making electric transportation mainstream, it disrupted a legacy industry and offered a new business model and consumer approach. (Disclaimer: I am a Tesla stockholder.)

The United Automobile, Aerospace, and Agriculture Workers (UAW) union was also at the White House ceremony.

UAW-represented workplaces range from multinational corporations, small manufacturers and state and local governments to colleges and universities, hospitals, and private non-profit organizations. The UAW has more than 400,000 active members in more than 600 local unions and has 1,150 contracts with some 1,600 employers in the US, Canada, and Puerto Rico. The UAW represents workers at GM, Ford, and Stellantis, but has been battling, so far unsuccessfully, to organize Tesla workers at its US plant in Fremont, California.

Indeed, right now Tesla is the only large US automaker without a unionized workforce. UAW spokesperson Brian Rothenberg said he was not aware that Tesla was not invited to the event.

Court Rulings on Tesla Unionization Controversies

In 2017, Tesla workers at its auto plant contacted the UAW to seek assistance to unionize. “We have a long history of engaging directly with our employees on the issues that matter to them, and we will continue to do so because it’s the right thing to do,” a Tesla spokesperson countered.

Administrative judge Amita Tracy pointed to 12 company actions in 2019 that violated US labor laws. That included letting security guards harass workers who were passing out union pamphlets in the parking lot, banning employees from wearing pro-union T-shirts and buttons, repeatedly interrogating union organizers, and eventually firing one of them.

Later, the National Labor Relations Board based their decision on Tracy’s ruling from 2019 and ordered Tesla to make Tesla’s chief executive delete a tweet that was seen as threatening to labor organizers who were discussing how to unionize within the company. The federal board also ordered Tesla to reinstate a terminated employee, Richard Ortiz, who was a union advocate. The order added that Elon Musk had illegally threatened workers with the loss of stock options if they unionized.

The Guardian reports that complaints from workers over being fired for engaging in efforts to unionize at Tesla have become common. “I was a union supporter. I wore a union shirt almost every day to work, and my supervisor at the time asked me why I wore it,” said Jim Owen, who left the Tesla factory in Fremont, California, in March 2018 due to concerns for his safety after a robot almost severely injured him while working on car hoods. “He told me upper management wouldn’t appreciate me wearing it.”

Unionization Would Be Good for Tesla & Its Workers

President Biden has taken a big step toward reducing greenhouse gas emissions with an executive order aimed at making half of all new vehicles sold in 2030 electric, a move made with vocal backing from the prominent US automakers. “The biggest thing that’s happening here is there’s a realization, on the part of both labor and business now, that this is the future. We can’t sit by,” Biden told reporters at the White House.

Clearly, Tesla is not a company content to “sit by” — it continually files patents to improve the quality of Tesla manufacturing. But, as a longtime Fremont autoworker wrote in Fortune, “We will only have a truly sustainable future if workers have a seat at the table throughout the transition from oil, gas, and internal combustion engines to batteries, charging stations, and zero-emission vehicles.”

Workers want to unionize so that they can have input into wages, hours, working conditions, and the many other issues that arise in the relationship between a worker and employer. Unions help set the standards for education, skill levels, wages, working conditions, and quality of life for workers. While not always the case, union-negotiated wages and benefits are generally superior to what non-union workers receive.

In Germany right now, labor unions are pressuring Tesla. It’s likely there will be a public relations campaign and protests to exert political and social pressure on Tesla to become what is considered a good corporate citizen. There could be organized rolling strikes or guerilla actions like slowing down work at a Tesla supplier or attempts to influence Tesla’s leadership from within.

The Biden administration has promised to strengthen union rights, incentivize unionization, and encourage collective bargaining. Research exposes how public feeling today toward labor is more positive, and public feeling toward big business more negative, than at any time in 5 decades. Workers increasingly want to unionize: over half of US workers say they would vote to unionize at their place of employment, while only 11% of US employees currently belong to one.

The bottom line is that, if Tesla was to become a union shop, both sides would benefit. With a stable workforce comes predictable labor costs. Tesla would be viewed publicly as an employer that makes a workforce safer, more productive, and more effective through training, better equipment, and making better use of their knowledge. The UAW, in turn, can be transparent in recognizing the needs of Tesla to be responsive to customers and competitive in its markets. It has already stated recently that the auto industry is now investing billions in the growth of electric vehicles, which could result in major changes in where and how vehicles are produced.

A recent survey from Consumer Reports found a third of US car buyers are considering an electric car the next time they purchase a new car. Having a Tesla company story that involves union workers and living wages would be a competitive advantage commercially, as those soon-to-be EV drivers would be more likely to choose a Tesla if their new car had been manufactured at a union facility.

 
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Written By

Carolyn Fortuna (they, them), Ph.D., is a writer, researcher, and educator with a lifelong dedication to ecojustice. She's won awards from the Anti-Defamation League, The International Literacy Association, and The Leavy Foundation. Carolyn is a small-time investor in Tesla. Please follow her on Twitter and Facebook.

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