United Auto Workers Has Sights Set on Tesla

The Tesla Gigafactory in February 2022 (Photo by Larry D. Moore / CC BY-SA 4.0)

Tesla is offering across-the-board raises ahead of what is shaping up to be a tense unionization battle with the United Auto Workers.

The UAW tried to unionize Tesla’s Fremont, California factory in 2016, after workers reported chest pains, abnormal breathing, fainting, and seizures, but the effort failed after CEO Elon Musk promised to make safety his top priority.

This time around, the UAW has gained considerable power from its historic contract with the Big Three automakers – General Motors, Ford, and Stellantis – following the six-week Stand Up Strike last year, and has begun circulating an authorization card among Tesla workers. Musk, on the other hand, isn’t winning any World’s Best Boss awards for his dumpster fire acquisition of Twitter, now X, in which he summarily fired two dozen employees for criticizing him and eventually shed an estimated four-fifths of the staff.

According to UAW President Shawn Fain, Tesla is in the UAW’s crosshairs: “While he’s getting extremely wealthy off the backs of his workers and he’s building rocket ships to fly his ass into outer space, workers continue to scrape to get by,” Fain told the Detroit News in December. This week a press release from the Texas AFL-CIO, the most prominent labor organization in Texas, notes that “the stakes for Texas workers are high. Tesla has a manufacturing plant in Austin, along with large operations in other industries overseen by Musk.”

It seems Musk is already trying to thwart organizing: Bloomberg reported January 11 that Tesla posted flyers at its Fremont factory announcing hourly wage raises for all U.S. production workers, though the company did not specify how much. This is part of an industry-wide trend; non-unionized automakers have been increasing average pay to match the UAW’s deals of at least 25% raises over the course of their 4.5-year deals. Toyota, Honda, Hyundai, and Volkswagen have all given out raises in the past few months.

Musk has a reputation for union-busting tactics; last time Tesla workers tried to organize, a federal appeals court upheld a ruling by the National Labor Relations Board that several workers were unlawfully terminated in retaliation. Musk also violated labor law in 2018 by tweeting a threat that workers would lose stock options if they unionized.

Meanwhile, in November, Musk – the world’s richest person – said, “I disagree with the idea of unions. I just don’t like anything which creates kind of a lords and peasants sort of thing.” If Tesla unionizes, he says “it will be because we deserve it and we’ve failed in some way.”

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