State Senator Sean Ryan has called on New York’s economic development agency to investigate Tesla’s firing of more than 40 employees last week in the wake of a union organizing drive at its South Buffalo plant.
In a related development, attorneys for Tesla Workers United amended one of its complaint against the company with the National Labor Relations Board. The union charges that at least 25 of those fired last week were in retaliation for the organizing effort.
Ryan, in a letter to Empire State Development President and CEO Hope Knight and Fort Schuyler Management Corp. Vice Chair Kristin Pound, called on the agencies to request “emails and other documents from Tesla officials in Buffalo relating to the firing of the workers.”
Ryan, the newly appointed chair of the state Senate’s Committee on Commerce, Economic Development and Small Business, said the agencies should examine those materials and report their findings to the NLRB.
“As a taxpayer-subsidized plant, the Buffalo Gigafactory is rightfully subject to a high level of scrutiny from the public,” Ryan, a Buffalo Democrat, wrote. “As such, Tesla must be held to the highest labor standards, and its treatment of employees must be beyond reproach. Even the appearance of anti-union tactics is something that we should take very seriously.”
New York — through ESD, Fort Schuyler and the SUNY Research Foundation — paid to build and help equip the Tesla plant for $959 million. Tesla began operations at the plant in 2017. Tesla, under its agreement with the state, is required to employ at least 1,460, with 500 in manufacturing roles.
In its latest report to the state at the beginning of February, Tesla said it employed 1,948, with plans to hire 130 more shortly after it submitted its report.
It’s not yet clear if Empire State Development and Fort Schuyler will comply with Ryan’s request. Asked for comment, ESD spokesperson Pamm Lent provided a statement from Gov. Kathy Hochul who said she “supports workers’ rights to unionize” and that her office “is closely monitoring the situation.” Lent did not say whether ESD would comply with Ryan’s request.
Ryan’s office said in a statement Wednesday that even if ESD doesn’t have investigatory authority, it can still request documents from Tesla.
“There is clearly an existing mechanism by which ESD can request documentation that no other entities have access to,” Ryan’s office said.
“ESD may not have subpoena power, but the state should be proactive in confirming Tesla’s assertion that the firings were not related to the organizing movement in order to ensure that New York’s taxpayers are not unwittingly subsidizing anti-union activity.”
Attorneys for Tesla Workers United last week filed three unfair labor practices complaints with the NLRB. One complaint alleges Tesla fired employees for joining a union. An amended complaint filed Monday contends that a total of 25 of the 40 dismissals were in retaliation for the union organizing effort.
Another complaint charges that Twitter and Tesla CEO Elon Musk “shadow banned” the Twitter account of Tesla Workers United. A third complaint alleges that a “no recording” policy at Tesla violates state and federal law.
Attorney Michael Dolce said Tesla’s agreement with the state requires it to abide by state and federal laws. Violations could put that agreement at risk, he said.
The NLRB is committing significant resources to investigating the complaints, Dolce said. The effort includes agents collecting 14 affidavits from fired employees in a single day.
One complaint asks the NLRB investigators to appeal to a federal judge to reinstate the fired workers if they find merit to the allegations. Investigators are reviewing other materials the employees submitted, including emails and performance reviews, in addition to their testimony.
Tesla, in a statement last week, denied firing the employees because they supported a union. Rather, the company said the employees were terminated because they failed to pass biannual performance reviews.
Dolce said he’s collected evidence that shows some employees, who were on coaching plans to improve performance, received positive feedback from managers prior to their termination. That indicates the employees were improving and could soon be finished with the coaching plan.
“‘You [perform well] again this week, we’ll be meeting again Monday and you’ll be out of the plan,’” Dolce said a manager told an employee. “They get terminated Wednesday. So what gives? Was the manager lying?”
Dolce said the firings could have a “chilling effect” on the union organizing campaign. He said some workers who support the union declined to sign the letter the union released last week announcing its organizing drive because they feared retaliation from Tesla.
“Even before they retaliate, because of the reputation of Tesla and Elon Musk, they’re already scared, because of all these other things that have happened,” he said. “And then the terminations happened. It’s like, how is the campaign supposed to succeed? Where is the free choice?”