Disgruntled Tesla Employee Publicly Calls for Unions, Musk Claims He’s a Union Mole

Tesla is facing criticism for safety issues, mandatory overtime, and punitive tardiness policies at its Fremont, California plant.

byLiane Yvkoff|
Tesla News photo

As Tesla prepares to ramp up production for the Model 3, it may soon face unexpected changes at the NUMMI factory in the form of a unionized workforce.

Jose Moran, a Tesla employee, posted an open letter on the self-publishing site Medium airing grievances about low wages, on-the-job injuries, and mandatory overtime. The letter, titled "Time for Tesla to Listen," calls on the electric vehicle manufacturer to heed its workers, many of whom are calling for unionization to improve wages, hours, and safety at the Fremont, Calif. factory. 

"A few months ago, six out of eight people in my work team were out on medical leave at the same time due to various work-related injuries. I hear that ergonomics concerns in other departments are even more severe. Worst of all, I hear coworkers quietly say that they are hurting, but they are too afraid to report it for fear of being labeled as a complainer or bad worker by management," Moran wrote on Medium.  

In 2014, Tesla was reportedly fined $89,000 by the California Division of Occupational Safety and Health for several safety violations, six considered "serious," stemming from a low-pressure aluminum casting press that failed, spraying workers with hot metal. According to The Mercury News, "Cal-OSHA’s investigation found that Tesla failed to ensure that the low-pressure die casting machine was maintained in a safe operating condition and allowed its employees to operate the machine while the safety interlock was broken. It also found that the employees had not been properly trained regarding the hazards of the machine, and were not wearing the required eye and face protection."

Tesla Wages Lower Than Average for Bay Area, Industry

Also at issue are lower-than-average wages for the industry. The average wage for an auto worker at the Tesla NUMMI factory is between $17 and $21, according to Moran, below the $28.10 per hour minimum living wage for one adult and one child in Alameda County, according to the MIT's Living Wage calculator, and below the $28 average hourly wage for a member of the United Automobile Workers (UAW) union. 

Many Tesla factory employees travel long distances to work at the factory because they're unable to afford living in the Bay Area. Adding insult to injury is the increasingly strict attendance policy that penalizes workers for being even a minute late—a situation potentially exacerbated by a parking lot that reportedly lacks enough available parking for the shift workers. In fact, the parking lot has its own Instagram account that shows some of the challenges employees face trying to find a place to park and still make it to the line on time. Employees end up boxed in by other vehicles or towed for parking outside of designated spaces. 

The Drive reached out to Tesla to inquire about responses to concerns about worker safety and parking-related tardiness, but did not hear back by the time of publication. In a Twitter DM conversation with Gizmodo, Tesla CEO Elon Musk implied that Moran was paid by the UAW to join Tesla and agitate for a union. "He doesn’t really work for us, he works for the UAW,” he said in the Twitter exchange. 

Gizmodo couldn't find any record of an employee by that name on social media sites. However, a source familiar with the situation contacted The Drive to say that Jose Moran has been an employee of the car company for four and a half years, and was working on the floor the day the letter was published. The UAW, meanwhile, vehemently denies paying Moran, writing in a statement on their website:

“Mr. Moran is not and has not been paid by the UAW. We would hope that Tesla would apologize to their employee, Mr. Moran, for spreading fake news about him. We can confirm that Mr. Moran and others at Tesla have approached the UAW, and we welcome them with open arms.”

A shot of the UAW.org webiste, UAW.org

Musk Says Unions Killed NUMMI in 2010

As for unionizing, Musk wrote to Gizmodo: "Tesla is the last car company left in California, because costs are so high. The UAW killed NUMMI and abandoned the workers at our Fremont plant in 2010. They have no leg to stand on.”

That may not be the entire picture of the plant's history. NUMMI was a joint operation between Toyota and GM, and its workers were represented by the UAW. GM pulled out of the agreement during the recession, and Toyota announced in 2009 that it would close the NUMMI factory due to overproduction, and shift work to other, under-utilized plants in Texas, where its North American headquarters are now based. The Fremont factory was Toyota's only unionized plant in the US; however, all of its manufacturing facilities in Japan are unionized.  

Timing Could Threaten Model 3 Production

Perhaps the most interesting aspect of the call to unionize is the timing. Tesla will shut down the Fremont factory for a week in February as it retools assembly lines to begin production of Model 3 prototypes. The company has an ambitious goal to produce sellable models by the end of the year, and plans to quickly ramp production up to 500,000 vehicles in 2018. Labor disputes could impact such aggressive manufacturing goals. 

A copy of Moran's open letter on Medium is reprinted below in its entirety:

Time for Tesla to Listen

I’m proud to be part of a team that is bringing green cars to the masses. As a production worker at Tesla’s plant in Fremont for the past four years, I believe Tesla is one of the most innovative companies in the world. We are working hard to build the world’s #1 car — not just electric, but overall. Unfortunately, however, I often feel like I am working for a company of the future under working conditions of the past.

Most of my 5,000-plus coworkers work well over 40 hours a week, including excessive mandatory overtime. The hard, manual labor we put in to make Tesla successful is done at great risk to our bodies.

Preventable injuries happen often. In addition to long working hours, machinery is often not ergonomically compatible with our bodies. There is too much twisting and turning and extra physical movement to do jobs that could be simplified if workers’ input were welcomed. Add a shortage of manpower and a constant push to work faster to meet production goals, and injuries are bound to happen.

A few months ago, six out of eight people in my work team were out on medical leave at the same time due to various work-related injuries. I hear that ergonomics concerns in other departments are even more severe. Worst of all, I hear coworkers quietly say that they are hurting but they are too afraid to report it for fear of being labeled as a complainer or bad worker by management.

Ironically, many of my coworkers who have been saying they are fed up with the long hours at the plant also rely on the overtime to survive financially. Although the cost of living in the Bay Area is among the highest in the nation, pay at Tesla is near the lowest in the automotive industry.

Most Tesla production workers earn between $17 and $21 hourly. The average auto worker in the nation earns $25.58 an hour, and lives in a much less expensive region. The living wage in Alameda county, where we work, is more than $28 an hour for an adult and one child (I have two). Many of my coworkers are commuting one or two hours before and after those long shifts because they can’t afford to live closer to the plant.

While working 60–70 hours per week for 4 years for a company will make you tired, it will also make you loyal. I’ve invested a great deal of time and sacrificed important moments with my family to help Tesla succeed. I believe in the vision of our company. I want to make it better.

I think our management team would agree that our plant doesn’t function as well as it could, but until now they’ve underestimated the value of listening to employees. In a company of our size, an “open-door policy” simply isn’t a solution. We need better organization in the plant, and I, along with many of my coworkers, believe we can achieve that by coming together and forming a union.

Many of us have been talking about unionizing, and have reached out to the United Auto Workers for support. The company has begun to respond. In November, they offered a raise to employees’ base pay — the first we’ve seen in a very long time.

But at the same time, management actions are feeding workers’ fears about speaking out. Recently, every worker was required to sign a confidentiality policy that threatens consequences if we exercise our right to speak out about wages and working conditions. Thankfully, five members of the California State Assembly have written a letter to Tesla questioning the policy and calling for a retraction.

I’m glad that someone is standing up for Tesla workers, and we need to stand up for ourselves too. The issues go much deeper than just fair pay. Injuries, poor morale, unfair promotions, high turnover, and other issues aren’t just bad for workers — they also impact the quality and speed of production. They can’t be resolved without workers having a voice and being included in the process.

Tesla isn’t a startup anymore. It’s here to stay. Workers are ready to help make the company more successful and a better place to work. Just as CEO Elon Musk is a respected champion for green energy and innovation, I hope he can also become a champion for his employees. As more of my coworkers speak out, I hope that we can start a productive conversation about building a fair future for all who work at Tesla.