Controversial firings follow Tesla union launch. Will the organizing effort win?

The union organizing effort faces challenges despite a U.S. labor resurgence.

February 18, 2023, 5:09 AM

When a group of Tesla workers at a factory in Buffalo launched a union organizing effort this week, it thrust employees into a high-profile standoff with a company led by CEO Elon Musk, one of the wealthiest people in the world.

A day later, on Wednesday, Tesla fired more than 30 workers at the facility, some of whom were involved in the organizing effort, the union said in a complaint filed with the National Labor Relations Board.

"We all saw people getting marched out," Nick Piazza, 32, a participant in the union drive who works at the warehouse labeling videos to improve Tesla's self-driving software, told ABC News. "I'm heartbroken by it."

"The timing is very suspicious," he added. "We feel it's a scare tactic. But it emboldens me."

In a blog post on Thursday, Tesla rejected allegations that there were retaliatory firings at the Buffalo facility. The company laid off 4% of the autopilot labeling staff as part of a routine performance review that takes place every six months, the company said.

According to Tesla, only one out of the 27 impacted employees was officially identified as part of the union campaign.

PHOTO: Elon Musk departs the Phillip Burton Federal Building and United States Court House in San Francisco, on Jan. 24, 2023.
Elon Musk departs the Phillip Burton Federal Building and United States Court House in San Francisco, on Jan. 24, 2023.
Benjamin Fanjoy/AP

Tesla identified the affected employees on Feb. 3, approximately 10 days before the launch of the union campaign, the company added.

The labor campaign at Tesla follows a resurgence in union organizing last year that brought landmark victories at major corporations like Amazon and Starbucks, carrying over similar grievances about insufficient pay and closely tracked performance.

The newly formed union of Tesla workers, called Tesla Workers United, is affiliated with Workers United, the labor organization that gained prominence last year for helping Starbucks workers unionize more than 260 stores nationwide.

The union drive at Tesla faces formidable challenges, however, since a campaign encompassing thousands of workers will prove more difficult than an organizing drive at a Starbucks store, for instance, which typically employs a few dozen workers, experts told ABC News.

On top of that, workers will likely encounter a well-resourced effort to dissuade them from unionizing, a modern-day corporate playbook for responding to labor drives that in some cases includes employee termination, the experts said.

"We're seeing a big upsurge of workers interested in joining a union," Susan Schurman, a labor studies professor at Rutgers University, told ABC News. "The question is just do they feel strongly enough to take the risk of trying to organize, understanding that one of the risks is that they're going to be fired?"

Tesla did not immediately respond to ABC News' request for comment.

The organizing committee, which counts between 40 and 50 members, has so far focused on issues of pay and job security, Piazza added.

"It's really hard to support a family in this economy," he said. "Some people are really struggling."

Workers also have taken issue with digital surveillance that closely tracks their performance, Piazza said. Such worker monitoring is "somewhat standard" in the industry, he said, but the technology overlooks some parts of the job, such as time spent coordinating with coworkers.

PHOTO: Tesla Inc. Gigafactory 2, which is also known as RiverBend, is pictured, March 26, 2020, in Buffalo, New York.
Tesla Inc. Gigafactory 2, which is also known as RiverBend, is pictured, March 26, 2020, in Buffalo, New York.
Lindsay Dedario/Reuters, FILE

Roughly 800 employees at the Buffalo facility work labeling video for self-driving software, but at least a thousand additional workers at the warehouse do other tasks, Piazza said. The union aims to organize all of the workers, he said, claiming that the employees in other departments appear receptive.

Tesla and Musk appeared to oppose a previous union campaign among workers at a factory in Fremont, California. In 2021, the National Labor Relations Board ordered Tesla to ask Musk to delete an anti-union message posted on Twitter a few years prior.

"Nothing stopping Tesla team at our car plant from voting union," Musk tweeted in 2018. "Could do so tmrw if they wanted. But why pay union dues & give up stock options for nothing?"

Musk did not delete the tweet and Tesla is challenging the NLRB order in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit.

While federal labor law protects unionizing workers from retaliation, the penalties are weak and the measures afford wide latitude for some anti-union tactics, such as mandatory meetings meant to deter workers, some labor observers say.

"The penalties are so slight that most employers consider it the cost of doing business," said Schurman, of Rutgers University.

Anne Lofaso, a labor professor at West Virginia University, said she expects that Musk will respond forcefully to the union campaign but the approach could backfire.

"I find it hard to believe Elon Musk will be quiet through this," she said. "If he starts to scare workers or over-respond, people get angry and say 'fine, I'll sign a card.'"

Organizing at a company led by Musk has induced some anxiety, Piazza said, adding that he doesn't view the union campaign as adversarial.

"It can be quite intimidating with Musk being such a huge public figure," Piazza said.

"Most of us like the company and like our jobs," he added. "We just think we deserve a seat at the table."

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