Workers in the United States have long held the right to unionize. However, companies are not always welcoming of such developments, and have often sought to discourage the practice through various means. Tesla has now been accused of such conduct after allegedly firing employees a day after they publicly announced their intent to form a union.
As reported by Bloomberg, The Workers United union filed an official complaint with the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) on Wednesday. The complaint accuses the automaker of firing over 30 employees at its Buffalo, New York facility “in retaliation for union activity and to discourage union activity.”
The move comes just a day after a worker organizing committee, known as Tesla Workers United, notified Musk by email of their intent to unionize. The group is comprised of 25 Tesla employees that process and mark data for Tesla’s Autopilot driver assist system.
In the wake of the firings, the committee released a statement to the media, as covered by WKBW Buffalo. "These firings are unacceptable," the group stated, adding "The expectations required of us are unfair, unattainable, ambiguous and ever-changing. For our CEO, Elon Musk, to fire 30 workers and announce his $2 billion charity donation on the same day is despicable. We stand as one."
Tesla Workers United and the larger Workers United union are working in partnership as they attempt to organize Tesla’s Buffalo operation. If the latter name sounds familiar, it’s because the organization recently helped unionize hundreds of Starbucks locations. The group hopes to unionize employees tagging Autopilot data as well as a further 1,000 manufacturing staff at the facility. According to the union, one of the fired employees was a member of the organizing committee, while several others that were fired had been involved in discussions around unionization.
Known as Gigafactory 2, Tesla’s Buffalo facility employs 800 staff responsible for tagging image data for Autopilot development. A subset of these employees are seeking to unionize, with the aim of attaining better job security and higher wages. Other employee concerns surround what they say are onerous productivity metrics that cause undue stress. According to workers, Tesla implements keystroke monitoring and times the performance of regular tasks, which has left some staff feeling pressured into skipping bathroom breaks.
It's not the first story involving Tesla and issues around unionization. Employees have made public calls for the company’s workers to form a union in order to improve working conditions. Primary concerns raised by Tesla employees include issues with parking, workplace safety, and wages. It’s not just a problem in the US, either; Tesla has historically faced worker disputes in its overseas plants, too.
There are laws that prohibit retaliation against workers for pursuing unionization in the US. If the NLRB complaint is found to have merit, Tesla may be forced to reinstate the fired workers, and backpay them for the intervening period.
Tesla has provided no public justification for the firings, and the company does not maintain an active PR department to reply to press queries. However, according to reports from Bloomberg, the company notified staff the day after the union announcement regarding workplace technology policies. In documents seen by Bloomberg, the policy update included new sections about protecting the “confidentiality, integrity and security” of Tesla’s business information.
The NLRB will likely take some time to investigate the firings. In the meantime, workers are out of pocket. Whether or not Tesla fired the workers for organizing is not clear at this stage. Regardless of this, the move may have a chilling effect on others in the company looking to unionize with their fellow workers.
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