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New effort to unionize Tesla’s workforce launches amid production expansion for Model 3

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The United Auto Workers has been trying to unionize Tesla’s growing workforce at the Fremont factory for a while now. Last year, UAW President Dennis Williams said that they were “respecting Tesla’s startup status” up until now, but they are seeking to get involved now that Tesla is increasing its production capacity with the Model 3.

Using similar language, a Tesla employee published a blog post today to get the ball rolling again. In a statement to Electrek, Tesla said that it plans to continue “engaging directly with employees” instead. 

Tesla production worker Jason Moran took to Medium today to share his hope for the company’s ~6,000 workers in Fremont to unionize.

Among his reasons to join a union, he complained about the wages:

“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.”

It’s true that Tesla’s starting salary on the production floor is $17/hour, but Tesla also offers equity to all employees from the ground up through their stock program.

It’s also true that the hours are long. The typical hours have been described as 12 hours a day – 5 days a week. When asked about it after the last UAW push to unionize, a Tesla spokesperson told us the following to justify the hours:

“There is no doubt that Tesla employees work harder than most. Changing the world is not a 9-5 job. We make this very clear to all candidates when they apply to work at Tesla. At times, during heavy production ramp, some shops in the factory may have to work on Saturdays. We give everyone advance notice when this is required to ensure they can plan their schedules accordingly. We also provide alternate work schedules for many of our production shops that include compressed work weeks allowing for more flexibility and schedule predictability.”
In his blog post, Moran also raised concerns about the working conditions:

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.

Moran then claims that they are being silenced through Tesla’s confidentiality policy:

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.

Tesla responded to the questioning of the policy by the members of the assembly and claimed that the confidentiality agreement had nothing to do with silencing the workers about their working conditions.

The company simply had employees sign the document to remind them their duty not to leak information. The move came after several anonymous leaks from a source called ‘Elon’s Velvet Jacket’.

We obtained the letter Tesla sent back in response. Tesla General Counsel Todd Maron wrote:

“We asked our employees to sign the Acknowledgement because Tesla recently suffered a rash of unauthorized leaks to the press and social media about product launches, specifications, and improvements – information that is critical to Tesla’s continued growth and success. The improper release of this information significantly damaged Tesla, and we therefore sought to remind our colleagues of their existing confidentiality obligations to the company.”

He follows with some quotes from the confidentiality agreement that highlights how employees can still raise concerns without violating the policy.

The first step would, of course, be going to management or HR, but Moran claims that Tesla’s “open-door policy” is not working:

“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.”

Coincidently, Electrek learned today that Mark Lipscomb, Tesla’s VP of human resources and second most senior HR exec after Tesla’s Arnnon Geshuri, left for Netflix this month.

Of course, a union would change the relationship between Tesla’s management and its workforce. It’s not the norm in Silicon Valley, but as a relatively large and rapidly growing manufacturer, Tesla is also not the norm in California.

A Tesla spokesperson sent us the following statement in response to Moran’s call to unionize:

“As California’s largest manufacturing employer and a company that has created thousands of quality jobs here in the Bay Area, this is not the first time we have been the target of a professional union organizing effort such as this. The safety and job satisfaction of our employees here at Tesla has always been extremely important to us. 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.”

The company describes Moran’s effort as “a professional union organizing effort”. The employee did claim that “many” of his colleagues are in contact with UAW.

Last October, Tesla said that they are currently 6,210 employees working in Fremont on two shifts, but that number is expected to increase to 9,315 after the planned expansion of the plant for Model 3.

As we reported yesterday, Tesla plans to shut down production for a week later this month in order to retool the factory.

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Avatar for Fred Lambert Fred Lambert

Fred is the Editor in Chief and Main Writer at Electrek.

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