The union behind the successful effort to organize Starbucks, both here and nationally, is trying to do likewise at Tesla’s plant in South Buffalo. But, much like with Starbucks, organizers are squaring off with an employer with a history of aggressively fending off unionizing efforts.
To wit, just one day after Tesla Workers United announced its organizing drive, Tesla fired 30 employees at its Buffalo plant, including some members of the union organizing team. They were dismissed via email Wednesday evening.
“I strongly feel this is in retaliation to the committee announcement and it’s shameful,” Arian Berek, a fired worker and union organizer, said in a statement.
WGRZ later confirmed that Tesla fired eight more workers this week.
Hey @elonmusk why is our Twitter shadow banned? 🤔🧐
— TeslaWorkersUnited (@united_tesla) February 16, 2023
Tesla on Thursday issued a statement denying the company had fired the 38 employees in retaliation for unionizing, calling it a “false allegation.”
Previous attempts to organize workers at the Buffalo plant, and a factory in California that manufactures electric cars, fell short and resulted in unions filing unfair labor practice charges against Tesla.
Union organizers in Buffalo also alleged that Tesla fired workers for supporting their efforts several years ago. The union filed two complaints with the NLRB; one was dismissed, the other withdrawn.
In the course of the unionizing efforts here in 2018 and 2019, Tesla workers told Investigative Post they were required to attend meetings in which management disparaged unions.
“They came up with these grand stories about how, you know, unions would take your rent money, you lose money every month,” one worker told Investigative Post.
Last summer, a former senior employee at the plant told Investigative Post that Tesla brought corporate officials to Buffalo to warn management about union efforts after some Black employees expressed dissatisfaction with how the company responded to the May 14 Tops shooting.
Workers say they’re unionizing in part to win better wages and less surveillance from the company. One employee told Investigative Post that Tesla had not delivered on a promised pay raise for new employees who completed a probationary period. He also said the company tracks workers constantly during their shifts, making it difficult for some to take bathroom breaks.
The plant employs about 2,100, with most working in either manufacturing or the Autopilot division. Around 600 employees input data for self-driving vehicles and start at about $18.50 an hour. More than 1,000 working in manufacturing, including the production of charging equipment and solar roofs, generally earn between $20 and $25 an hour.
That pay is below average for manufacturing jobs. As of May 2021, manufacturing jobs in New York paid an average of $37.71 per hour, or $78,440 annually, according to the U.S. Department of Labor. Median pay was closer to $30 per hour.
Several Tesla workers have told Investigative Post they have to work a second job to make ends meet.
The previous organizing effort was led by United Steelworkers and the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers. The current effort involves Tesla Workers United, affiliated with Workers United Upstate New York, the union that helped kick off a wave of unionization at Starbucks stores nationwide.
Beginning in 2021, Starbucks Workers United began organizing efforts, winning their first union election in Buffalo in December. In the year since, workers at 262 Starbucks have won union elections nationwide. Workers at 65 stores lost elections and outcomes are pending at 32 additional stores, according to data compiled by CNBC.
Workers are currently negotiating contracts with Starbucks, though none have been adopted yet. The NLRB ruled in December that Starbucks was illegally refusing to negotiate with the union at 21 stores.
Even before the Wednesday night firings, Tesla Workers United organizers knew they faced an uphill battle at Tesla. To that end, when Tesla Workers United announced their campaign, the union issued a letter Tuesday demanding Tesla not interfere with their organizing and allow a union election to be held.
“If Tesla workers choose to unionize, there will be no negative repercussions from management,” reads one of the demands.
“Tesla agrees not to make any implicit threats (lawful but unethical) or explicit threats (unlawful),” reads another.
Jacob Craven, one of the Tesla workers joining the union effort, said he’s happy with some of the benefits the company offers, like its healthcare plan, but wants a union to negotiate better working conditions.
Craven, who was hired in November, said he and others in the Autopilot division can be issued warnings and discipline if they don’t stay active on the Autopilot software program consistently.
“There’s a minimum amount of time in the software that you have to hit every day based on how many meetings … you have,” he said. “And if you don’t hit that, you get a warning. But if you go over it, you don’t get any benefit. And you’re not allowed to leave early.”
He added that managers write up workers if they come back from a break even two minutes late.
“They run that place like it’s a middle school,” he said.
State Sen. Sean Ryan, a Buffalo Democrat and former labor attorney, told Investigative Post that unionizing the Tesla factory has been difficult in part because of the state’s contract with the company.
After paying nearly $1 billion to build and equip the factory, Ryan said, the state only mandated that Tesla employ at least 1,460 and did not secure other provisions, including a pledge that the company would remain neutral during union campaigns.
“Not only did we not mandate a job rate, or a wage rate, we also didn’t make it so they have to stay neutral in any unionization efforts,” Ryan said. “So we really dropped the ball on that one.”
Richard Lipsitz, the former head of the Western New York Area Labor Federation, AFL-CIO, added that unions wanted the Cuomo administration to ensure union neutrality in its Buffalo Billion deal with Tesla.
“We wanted union neutrality for the permanent jobs and we were never able to get that from the powers that be at the time,” Lipsitz said.
Tesla operates four plants in the United States, including facilities in Austin, Texas, and Sparks, Nevada. The two other plants, in Buffalo and Fremont, California, have been the target of union organizing efforts.
In 2018, before organizers announced their campaign in Buffalo, Tesla offered workers a pay raise, a move some employees interpreted as a way to stop the organizing efforts. That raise brought starting pay at the factory to $15.50 per hour.
“They called it a cost-of-living raise. But that was really to shut people up because there had been union talk,” one employee told Investigative Post.
That employee added that Tesla management made workers sit through meetings aimed at convincing them to not join a union between October 2018 and January 2019. Management alleged that unions are corrupt and that workers would be forced to give up Tesla stock if they joined a union, the employee, who spoke to Investigative Post anonymously in fear of retaliation, said.
Then, in June and July 2019, United Steelworkers officials filed unfair labor practice charges against Tesla, alleging further interference. In one, the union alleged Tesla had laid off a worker “in retaliation for [their] union support” and that Tesla fired other workers in “retaliation” for their union support. One charge was dismissed and the other withdrawn.
After the May 14 shooting at Tops that left 10 dead, several employees said workers — some of whom were personally affected by the tragedy — wanted to leave work to attend a vigil at Tops. At first, Tesla management “gave them a hard time” about leaving work, several employees said. Management did ultimately allow workers to attend, but grew concerned that employees could start discussing a union effort.
In response, a former employee said, Tesla brought in a corporate executive to speak with management about how to avoid a union.
“It was absolutely disgusting,” said the former senior employee, who spoke to Investigative Post anonymously for fear of retaliation from Tesla.
Efforts to organize a union at the California plant began in 2014. The factory produces electric cars. The union has since filed 15 complaints of unfair labor practices. They include allegations of surveillance, layoffs, firings and other retaliation to the union effort.
Tesla settled with the union on one of the complaints. Seven others remain open, according to NLRB data.
In addition, CNBC reported last year that the company had previously hired a public relations firm to monitor employees during a California union campaign.
Musk has not responded publicly to news of the union effort in Buffalo. A request for comment from Tesla was not returned prior to publication.
Editor’s note: This story has been updated with a response from Tesla.