A few days ago, news outlets reported that Tesla employees in Buffalo, New York, accused the company of firing them for trying to start a union. In response, the company published a blog post denying the allegations. Let’s take a look at what happened.
According to a number of news outlets (here’s one of many articles), a group of Tesla employees at the Gigafactory 2 located in Buffalo, New York, claim that more than 30 workers were terminated on February 14 in response to the announcement of a union-organizing effort at the facility. The allegations suggest that the dismissals were an attempt by management to suppress efforts to unionize amongst the approximately one thousand workers employed at the facility.
Per the reports, the workers at Gigafactory 2 are pushing for unionization due to the demand for improved wages and job stability. They cite concerns about productivity demands, such as worker surveillance during tasks and monitoring of keystrokes, which discourage some employees from taking bathroom breaks.
“I feel blindsided. I got Covid and was out of the office, then I had to take a bereavement leave,” said Arian Berek, a fired employee who was on a union organizing committee. “I returned to work, was told I was exceeding expectations, and then Wednesday came along. I strongly feel this is in retaliation to the committee announcement and it’s shameful.”
Additionally, the Tesla workers at Gigafactory 2 have expressed concern over a new policy that forbids employees from recording workplace meetings without the consent of all participants. According to reports, the workers believe this policy goes against federal labor law and New York state’s one-party consent law on recording conversations. This move has further fueled their push for unionization and improved working conditions at the facility.
The group, called Tesla Workers United, is affiliated with the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) affiliate Workers United, and they have been leading the campaign for unionization at Gigafactory 2. They have filed an injunction with the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) seeking to halt any further firings of employees involved in the unionization efforts.
This wouldn’t be the first time such allegations have surfaced. It’s worth noting that Tesla workers previously attempted to unionize at the Fremont production plant back in 2017 with the United Auto Workers. Unfortunately, several employees who were involved in the union campaign were terminated, which led to accusations of union-busting tactics by Tesla.
More recently, the NLRB ordered Tesla to reinstate Richard Ortiz, a worker who was fired during the 2017 unionization campaign at the Fremont production plant. The NLRB found that Tesla’s termination of Ortiz was unlawful and ordered his reinstatement with back pay.
Other incidents in the media that have been reported include a government agency ordering Elon Musk to delete an anti-union tweet and the NLRB ordering Tesla to allow workers to wear pro-union clothing on the job.
While it’s impossible for most media outlets to get ahold of Tesla to ask questions for stories, this one was apparently big enough for the company to publish a blog post defending itself from the allegations.
According to the company, the firings were already set in motion before the union-organizing effort began. The company says that it does a cycle of employment performance reviews every six months, and that this was the time when the cycle ended. Additionally, they say that this is a global cycle, and not unique to Buffalo.
Tesla says about 4% of the Autopilot labeling team members in Buffalo were let go. These employees had been previously notified by their managers about their unsatisfactory performance during the review period. However, the company says they failed to show significant improvement despite receiving feedback on their performance.
“The impacted employees were identified on February 3, 2023, which was well before the union campaign was announced,” the blog post said. “We became aware of organizing activities approximately 10 days later. 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.”
The company also says that the only thing they’re recording for employee computer time is how long it takes for each image to be labeled, so it shouldn’t discourage employees from taking breaks as needed and required by law.
He Said, She Said
At this point, it would be irresponsible to take a side on this. Obviously, both myself and colleagues at CleanTechnica want employees to be treated fairly and legally. But, at the same time, we also know that Tesla gets a lot of crap in the media and doesn’t always get a fair shake.
In this particular case, the company and the former employees are saying things that can’t both be true. For example, Tesla says that the people who got fired knew in advance that their performance numbers were low and that this was planned ahead of Tesla knowing about the unionization effort. But, at least one employee (quoted further up) says that Tesla said their numbers were good and that they were exceeding expectations.
The best thing we can do at this point would be to wait. It’s tempting for Tesla critics to take the word of the fired employees, and it’s equally tempting for big fans of Tesla to want to take Tesla’s word on this. But none of us outside of Tesla or the unionization effort can really know with any certainty who’s telling the truth and who’s making stuff up.
It’s certainly possible that employees who knew they were about to get fired could decide it’s time to try to form a union so that they could claim to have been wrongfully fired. It’s also very much possible that a company could cook its books and have a second set of bad performance reviews standing by in a cabinet for the purpose of union-busting.
But, the mere possibility of either of these things or infinite other possibilities here (or a mix of them) doesn’t mean much right now. We’re going to need to wait for the NLRB and other government agencies to investigate and come up with some more solid findings.
Featured image provided by Tesla.
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