In April, when Tesla employees interested in unionizing claimed the electric car company was illegally intimidating them, Tesla dismissed the allegations as "entirely without merit."
But the National Labor Relations Board disagrees. On Thursday, the Oakland regional office of the NLRB filed a complaint against Tesla, having found merit in the employee’s charges of coercion and interference.
In April, the United Automobile Workers union filed four separate charges with the National Labor Relations Board alleging Tesla had illegally surveilled and coerced factory workers attempting to distribute information about the union drive.
Filed Thursday, the NLRB complaint provides further detail about what happened in February at Tesla’s Fremont factory. It notes that security guards asked the employees distributing leaflets to produce employee ID badges, and told them to leave the premises. The complaint also cites Tesla’s confidentiality agreement, which says workers are prohibited from communicating with the media, sharing photos of their work facility on social media, and forwarding work emails to personal accounts. It also names at least three individual Tesla managers or supervisors who personally “interrogated” employees about union activities or “attempted to prohibit” employees from discussing union activities.
As such, wrote NLRB regional director Valerie Hardy-Mahoney, the agency determined that Tesla “has been interfering with, restraining and coercing employees in the exercise of their rights.”
The board’s complaint isn’t the last word on the case. It will next be reviewed by an administrative law judge at a hearing. It could also be settled.
For its part, Tesla insists the union’s allegations are baseless.
“For seven years, the UAW has used every tool in its playbook: misleading and outright false communications, unsolicited and unwelcomed visits to the homes of our employees, attempts to discredit Tesla publicly in the media, and now another tactic that has been used in every union campaign since the beginning of time — baseless ULP [unfair labor practices] filings that are meant only to generate headlines,” a Tesla spokesperson wrote via email. “These allegations, which have been filed by the same contingent of union organizers who have been so outspoken with media, are entirely without merit.” (The full statement is published in full below.)
The workers who initially brought the charges are part of a unionization effort that calls itself Fair Future at Tesla. A spokesperson from that group provided a statement from some of the workers.
“I joined others in filing the charges for myself, but I also did it for my coworkers — they need to know we have rights, and that we can speak up about what we are seeing and experiencing,” said Tesla production associate Jonathan Galescu in a statement. “I want to thank the NLRB for hearing us and the UAW for having our backs as we continue our fight to address the issues on the shop floor and form our union.”
The NLRB case against Tesla is directly linked to the UAW’s attempt to form a union at Tesla’s Fremont, California, factory, where workers have publicly alleged long hours, low pay, and dangerous working conditions, resulting in frequent 911 calls and countless long term injuries.
The confidentiality agreement is a particular bone of contention; Tesla has insisted that the agreement it asks workers to sign — which prohibits them from sharing photos of Tesla’s facility or talking about work on social media, among other things — is typical of any tech company. But back in February, California lawmakers warned Tesla in a letter that its confidentiality agreement was overreaching, and could have “a chilling effect on workers' ability to engage in protected activity,"
In May, Tesla replaced its head of human resources, part of a larger department shakeup that followed the union effort, allegations of dangerous working conditions, and potential labor law violations that occurred in the course of Tesla’s union drive.
Tesla CEO Elon Musk has pushed back against the allegations that the Fremont factory is unsafe, or that workers are paid less than those employed elsewhere in the auto industry; he’s also apologized to workers, reportedly spent time working next to them on the factory line, and offered to install free frozen yogurt machines throughout the plant.
But these are tough times at Tesla, with the production of the latest car, the Model 3, ramping up to meet Musk’s stated goal of high production volume by September. In an earnings call earlier this month, Musk warned that the company would experience “at least six months of production hell."
Tesla’s hearing at the National Labor Relations Board is scheduled for Nov. 14.
Here's Tesla's full statement on the NLRB's complaint against it:
“As we approach Labor Day weekend, there’s a certain irony in just how far the UAW has strayed from the original mission of the American labor movement, which once advocated so nobly for the rights of workers and is the reason we recognize this important holiday. Faced with declining membership, an overwhelming loss at a Nissan plant earlier this month, corruption charges that were recently leveled against union leaders who misused UAW funds, and failure to gain traction with our employees, it’s no surprise the union is feeling pressured to continue its publicity campaign against Tesla. For seven years, the UAW has used every tool in its playbook: misleading and outright false communications, unsolicited and unwelcomed visits to the homes of our employees, attempts to discredit Tesla publicly in the media, and now another tactic that has been used in every union campaign since the beginning of time — baseless ULP filings that are meant only to generate headlines. These allegations, which have been filed by the same contingent of union organizers who have been so outspoken with media, are entirely without merit. We will obviously be responding as part of the NLRB process.”
Caroline O'Donovan is a senior technology reporter for BuzzFeed News and is based in San Francisco.
Contact Caroline O’Donovan at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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