The UAW is claiming symbolic victory over Tesla in the union’s long and so far futile effort to organize workers at the electric car maker’s plant in Fremont, CA.
The National Labor Relations Board has ruled Tesla cannot prohibit its employees from wearing union badges or insignia on the uniforms they wear inside the company’s assembly plants. By a 3-2 vote, the NLRB, now dominated by President Biden’s appointees, reverses a Trump-era decision that held Tesla could ban the insignia worn by UAW supporters.
In the ruling, stemming from an unfair labor practices case filed by the UAW in 2018, the NLRB orders Tesla to cease and desist from maintaining and enforcing a work-attire policy that prohibits employees from wearing black union shirts; to rescind that policy; to notify all current employees that the policy has been rescinded; and to post a notice in the plant stating Tesla will comply with the law and not prohibit black union shirts.
The Trump-era NLRB decision had strengthened an employer’s ability to restrict worker expression on the shop floor. Unfortunately, the decision comes more than four years after workers and the UAW filed unfair labor practice charges with the NLRB, the UAW says.
“Our union commends this decision as a just recognition that the right to organize is meaningless if workers cannot exercise the right without fear of reprisal,” UAW President Ray Curry (pictured, left) says in a statement released after the NLRB handed down the decision.
“Worker expression is a statement of solidarity during organizing. As a result of this decision, which the UAW fought for, workers can feel more secure in their pro-union expression today as they work to form their unions,” Curry adds.
By ruling against Tesla, the board says it is upholding a precedent established in a 1945 U.S. Supreme Court decision stating it is “presumptively unlawful” for employers to restrict union clothing without special circumstances that justify the ban.
The UAW’s dispute with Tesla over the shirts dates to 2017 when a union organizing drive at the Fremont plant was showing signs of picking up momentum. Tesla and its CEO, Elon Musk, fought back by laying off dozens of employees and firing union activists.
As part of the campaign against the union, Tesla instituted a new policy dictating employees had to wear a specific uniform supplied by the company. But under the NLRB ruling, union badges or stickers now can be worn on the uniforms supplied by the company.
In a ruling issued last year, the NLRB says UAW supporters at Tesla were wrongfully fired and ordered them reinstated. Tesla balked and has filed an appeal, which is now pending before the Fifth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in New Orleans.
The NLRB also has ruled in a separate case that in a May 20, 2018, tweet, Musk unlawfully threatened employees with loss of stock options if they chose to be represented by the UAW. The board ordered Tesla to make Musk delete the tweet and stop threatening employees with loss of benefits for supporting a labor organization.
Musk (pictured, below left), who says he believes in free speech and free expression, has not commented on the NLRB’s latest ruling. Earlier this year, though, Musk, a vocal critic of the UAW, used a Twitter post to say the union can hold an organizing vote at the company any time it wants.
Musk adds via Twitter that Tesla can hire and retain workers in the current, very tight labor market only by paying and treating them well, and he is not concerned about having a union vote at the company.
“I’d like to hereby to invite UAW to hold a union vote at their convenience. Tesla will do nothing to stop them,” he says.
The UAW’s organizing effort at Fremont, where Tesla has more than 10,000 employees, has been stalled and the union has yet to penetrate other Tesla operations in Nevada, Texas or New York.
During the UAW’s Constitutional Convention in July, delegates reaffirmed the union’s commitment to recruiting new members, which also has been stalled by the scandal that engulfed the UAW’s leadership over the past five years and sent a dozen UAW leaders, including two past presidents, to prison for federal crimes.
The UAW did succeed in organizing workers at a ZF plant in Marysville, MI, last year and employees at Dakkota Integrated Systems in Hazel Park, MI, voted Aug. 19 to join the union.
According to the UAW, local unions are following up on more leads, filing more petitions and organizing more worksites than ever. Delegates at the Constitutional Convention passed an amendment to the UAW constitution that creates an 11th standing committee – an organizing committee – at local unions.