The Unionizing Tesla

Some Tesla factory employees are turning to the United Auto Workers to help them improve pay, safety and workplace conditions at the company’s massive San Francisco Bay Area auto-assembly plant, according to a blog post by an individual identifying himself as one of those employees.

A move to unionize workers at the plant comes at a critical time, as Tesla targets exponential production increases with the rollout of its $35,000 Model 3 electric sedan starting late this year.

In a post on Medium.com titled “Time for Tesla to Listen,” Jose Moran said he’s been a “proud” team member at the Fremont, Calif., facility for four years, but that more needs to be done to improve circumstances at the fast-growing operation.

“Most of my 5,000-plus co-workers 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,” Moran wrote. “Preventable injuries happen often.”

What’s more, hourly pay at the plant ranges between $17 and $21 – below a national average of $25.58 an hour – and doesn’t cover the cost of living in pricey Alameda County, Moran said.

A living wage in the area, home to Silicon Valley, “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.”

As a result, Moran said, “many of us have been talking about unionizing, and have reached out to the United Auto Workers for support.” While the company did offer to raise base wages in November, Moran said Tesla also began asking workers to sign a confidentiality agreement, attended to prevent them from publicly discussing wages and working conditions.

That move drew a letter from five members of the California Assembly members in January, asking Tesla to revise the language of its confidentiality policy, which the members said didn’t adhere to state and federal labor policy rules.

“We are concerned that the over-broad language in the confidentiality agreement violates these provisions and has resulted in a chilling effect on workers’ ability to engage in protected activity,” according to the letter from Assembly members Tony Thurmond, Bill Quirk, Kansen Chu, Rob Bonta and Ash Kalra.

Tesla didn’t directly comment on Moran’s post or his specific claims.

“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 company said in a statement. “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.”

CEO Elon Musk later responded more bluntly, telling website Gizmodo that Moran “doesn’t really” work for Tesla. He also defended Tesla’s pay policy for factory workers and said overtime hours are dropping at Fremont.

“Our understanding is that this guy was paid by the UAW to join Tesla and agitate for a union,” Musk said, via direct messages to Gizmodo. “He doesn’t really work for us, he works for the UAW.”

The plant is the only large-scale auto factory on the West Coast, and has been a source of pride for California since Tesla took it over in 2010. For most of its life, starting in the early 1960s as a General Motors plant and then from 1984 until 2009 as joint-venture factory New United Motor Manufacturing, or NUMMI, shared by GM and Toyota, the Fremont facility was a UAW factory.

In May 2010, at a joint press conference with Toyota President Akio Toyoda and then-California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger announcing Tesla’s purchase of the plant, Musk was non-committal on whether employees would once again have union representation. In response to a press conference question at the time, he said only that such a decision would ultimately be up to plant workers.

In May 2016, UAW President Dennis Williams said the union was watching Tesla “very closely,”according to USA Today. “We just believe workers ought to have a voice in the workplace, and they ought to have collective bargaining rights.”

Musk told Gizmodo he finds Moran’s comments “morally outrageous.”

“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.”

Tesla is racing to ready both Fremont and its massive Gigafactory battery plant in Nevada to start production of Model 3 cars, along with the current Model S and Model X. By late 2018, Musk has said Tesla wants to be able to build as many as 500,000 vehicles annually, or more than five times what it made in 2016. By 2020, the goal is to achieve a production pace of 1 million electric vehicles annually.

In January, Tesla said it built about 84,000 of its premium electric vehicles in Fremont. The company will release its full-year and fourth-quarter results on February 22.