Tesla workers in Buffalo launch unionization drive

Members of the Tesla Workers United organizing committee are seen outside a Tesla factory in Buffalo, New York on February 14, 2023.

(Photo: Brian Murray/Twitter)

As UAW Strikes at Big Three, Progressives Eye Next Potential Unionization Target: Tesla

"This strike could be a bellwether," said one professor. "It's a hot time in the labor movement."

As members of the United Auto Workers union strike for better pay and benefits at General Motors, Ford, and Stellantis plants, labor advocates and progressive politicians this week took aim at what could be the next big unionization target: Elon Musk's Tesla.

"There is a group of Tesla workers who are actively talking about forming a union and creating the best representation they can for themselves and their co-workers through collective bargaining," Mike Miller, director of UAW Region 6—which is made up of California and Nevada, where Tesla makes vehicles and batteries—toldThe New York Times on Thursday.

While Tesla—which is owned by the notoriously anti-union Elon Musk, the world's wealthiest person—may enjoy short-term advantages over the Big Three as production lines are idle in the Midwest, some observers say that the UAW strike could prove an inspiration and catalyst for Tesla workers seeking to unionize.

"This strike could be a bellwether," Villanova University professor Rick Eckstein told the Times. "It's a hot time in the labor movement."

In 2018, the UAW tried, and failed, to organize workers at Tesla's Fremont, California plant, which was previously a unionized GM-Toyota facility. Despite Musk's assertion on Twitter—which he later bought and renamed X—that there was "nothing stopping" workers at the plant from voting to unionize, UAW officials alleged the company was engaging in illegal union-busting activities, and the National Labor Relations Board agreed. The NLRB ordered Tesla to rehire a worker illegally fired for disparaging a non-union colleague and compelled Musk to delete his tweet. The 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals subsequently affirmed the NLRB's decision.

In February, Tesla terminated dozens of workers at its Buffalo, New York plant in what critics called an act of "retaliation" for their effort to unionize. The fired workers' case is currently before the NLRB.

"Such tactics are fully in line with the attitude of Musk himself, who has routinely made anti-union statements and publicly threatened to take away employees' stock options if they unionized," labor writer Hamilton Nolan wrote in an opinion piece published Thursday by The Guardian.

"Despite having a net worth of $270 billion, Musk does not believe that the workers who make his products should be able to get together and negotiate a fair contract for themselves," Nolan added. "He's greedy. He's ignorant. He's a crumb."

Some observers say autoworkers are paying close attention to the strikers' demands—and whether they win them.

New York Times auto industry reporter Jack Ewing wrote Thursday that "as representatives of the national union demand 40% wage increases from the Detroit automakers, along with significant gains in benefits, they are certainly thinking about the signal that any deal would send to nonunion workers at Tesla."

As Nolan put it: "The UAW knows damn well that Tesla workers need a union. But organizing an $800 billion company run by a union-buster with infinite money is not easy."

But, he asserted, "not even Musk can hide from the labor movement forever."

"It's been around a lot longer than he has," Nolan noted, adding wryly that "if he can't bear to have a free union election in his plant, I'm sure that we could arrange a cage match for him with an auto worker to settle this issue once and for all."

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