UAW-Tesla relations are at a 'turning point'

The Tesla plant in Fremont, Calif., is the target of complaints and lawsuits.

Tesla Inc.’s fraught relationship with the UAW may soon come to a head.

As part of its effort to organize the electric automaker’s Fremont, Calif., factory, the union has filed a string of unfair labor practice charges with the National Labor Relations Board. The complaints, grouped with reports of working conditions at the plant and a changing political environment, could soon turn up the heat on Tesla as it deals with production issues.

“This is the beginning of something,” said Harley Shaiken, a labor professor at the University of California, Berkeley. “They’re provoking ongoing conflict with a significant number of workers at a point where Tesla needs it the least.”

The UAW’s efforts in Fremont garnered attention in February 2017, when Tesla employee Jose Moran published a blog post detailing harsh working conditions, adding that workers had contacted the union as a result.

Since then, more reports of on-site injuries have emerged, as well as lawsuitsdocumenting employee discrimination. The UAW has also filed charges with the NLRB, alleging Tesla intimidated pro-union employees and forced them to sign nondisclosure agreements barring discussion of plant conditions.

The most recent unfair labor practice complaint, filed with the NLRB in February, claims Tesla disciplined or terminated employees for participating in union activities in the past six months, according to documents obtained by Automotive News via public records request. In October, the automaker fired 700 workers, which Tesla CEO Elon Musk said was part of routine performance reviews.

“You’ve got a turning point here,” Shaiken said. “Tesla, which has been so innovative in so many ways, seems to be reverting to 1930s-style union avoidance in the way it’s dealing with the UAW.”

Uncertain environment

The UAW’s efforts come under an unpredictable presidential administration and an approaching leadership change within the union. Under the Barack Obama administration, the NLRB proved to be sympathetic to labor, while the agency under President Donald Trump has yet to take a clear stance, Shaiken said. In addition, the UAW is slated to elect a new president in June.

“There are a lot of changes coming,” said Kristin Dziczek, director of the industry, labor and economics group at the Center for Automotive Research. “The UAW’s success depends on the strength of the case and the political environment of the NLRB.”

It’s also unclear whether the UAW has enough support within Fremont to hold a successful election. Dziczek said the large number of workers and turnover at the factory make it difficult to accurately gauge union sentiment. A spokeswoman for the UAW declined to comment on the union’s recent efforts at Tesla.

With the number of question marks surrounding the Fremont effort, the NLRB complaints allow the UAW to maintain its presence among workers while also slowly wearing down Tesla with mounting legal fees.

“[Unfair labor practice complaints] are a pressure point for Tesla,” Dziczek said. “It’s partly a message to potential bargaining units: We’ve got your back when things aren’t fair.”

Critical timing

Despite the publicity over working conditions, firings and labor complaints, Tesla has dismissed the charges, saying in a statement, “It’s worth remembering that each year, roughly 20,000 [unfair labor practice complaints] are filed with the NLRB by unions like the UAW as an organizing tactic.”

However, as the automaker continues to get production on track for the Model 3 — the assembly line was idled as recently as February and a recent report details a high amount of parts needing to be reworked off the line — labor conflicts could threaten to add more delays to the process.

“The last thing Tesla needs is a protracted fight with its own workers and a union organizing campaign,” Shaiken said. “To profitably manufacture electric cars, they’re going to need a highly motivated workforce.”

Volkswagen experienced similar efforts from the UAW to organize its plant in Chattanooga. The German automaker agreed to remain neutral — campaigning neither for nor against unionization — for a vote to organize in 2014, which the UAW lost. The union then successfully organized a group within the plant, and continues to battle for recognition from Volkswagen.

As Tesla continues to spend time and money to ramp up the Model 3, a drawn-out battle with the UAW would add more stress to its bottom line.

“I don’t see a corporate campaign now, but something like that could absolutely be a result,” Shaiken said. “A hard line exacerbates these problems.”

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