The UAW has reached out to local unions in the San Francisco Bay area for assistance in its fledgling drive to organize workers at the Tesla assembly plant in Fremont, CA.
The collision between Tesla Chairman Elon Musk’s 14-year-old company and the 82-year-old UAW is shaping up as a clash between two organizations with very different perspectives on the world, a veteran labor-affairs observer says.
“What you have is two very different cultures,” says Harley Shaiken, a professor at the University of California-Berkeley, which has played a role in nurturing the unique culture of Northern California’s Silicon Valley.
“On the one hand you have the entrepreneurial startup culture of Silicon Valley represented by Tesla, and on the other hand you have the culture of the factory floor represented by the UAW,” he says.
Employees at the Tesla plant are intensely proud of their company’s technology and accomplishments such as the Model S and Model X all-electric vehicles, Shaiken tells WardsAuto.
However, their workplace and Tesla headquarters in Palo Alto, CA, are separated by more than just the 15 miles (24 km) across the southern end of San Francisco Bay, he says.
Employees in Silicon Valley work long hours, lured by stock options and the belief a new company can – and has – produced enormous wealth virtually overnight. The approximately 6,000 workers at the Fremont plant, meanwhile, are driven by the demands of an assembly-line production system that requires discipline, focus and stamina, notes Shaiken, who has written extensively about the impact of automation on blue-collar workers.
Compensation in Silicon Valley and Fremont also is much different.
“I know Tesla workers get some (company) stock,” Shaiken says. But the number of shares is small and the basic starting pay for assembly-line workers is $17 per hour and increases to $19 per hour in a region with some of the country’s highest costs for basic needs such as housing.
Frank Hammer, a former UAW staff member and a veteran Detroit-area plant worker, notes Tesla also is in the midst of steadily rising production as the company prepares to build its $35,000-sticker-priced Model 3.
“I’m sure everyone in California wants to see Tesla succeed. But when you raise production, that translates into more pressure for workers on the shop floor,” says Hammer, who visited the Fremont plant when it was operated by New United Motor Manufacturing, the General Motors-Toyota joint venture that ended with GM’s bankruptcy.
“Tesla has clearly learned some lessons from NUMMI,” Hammer says. “When NUMMI operated, it was considered a very productive plant and the employees had to run to keep up with the assembly line.”
UAW President Dennis Williams confirms the union has received inquiries from Tesla workers about organizing a union. The calls have become frequent enough for the UAW to send an organizer to work with the interested employees.
Musk, one of the most visible business figures in the U.S. if not the world, has taken to Twitter to denounce the UAW and charge the union with paying employees to accuse Tesla of ignoring safety violations and other problems in the plant.
Musk also has tweeted about plans to add amenities such as a rollercoaster at the Fremont site.
Williams denies the union paid the employee singled out by Musk’s attacks and urges the Tesla CEO to begin a dialogue with the union.
“The UAW effort is clearly only in its beginning stages,” Shaiken says, adding he is surprised Musk, who, like President Trump uses social media to act as his own corporate communications department, is going on the offensive against the union.
Shaiken says he believes the union could help Tesla reach its goals by offering employees a systematic way to offer constructive advice to management. Musk’s view of labor relations seems “stuck in the 1950s and 1960s” and is out of step with the 21st-century high-tech image he has crafted for Tesla.
Tesla, according to its website, allows owners of its vehicles to tour the Fremont plant and speak with employees. The workers are prohibited from discussing the company’s technology, which is understandable, Shaiken says, but he notes the same policy bars employees from discussing other internal issues, making it difficult to judge morale or pro- or anti-union sentiment in the plant.
“I doubt that’s legal under the National Labor Relations Act,” which gives employees the right to speak out about working conditions, he says.
At least three employees have filed complaints with the National Labor Relations Board about being singled out for “concerted activity,” a term often used to describe expressing pro-union sentiments while at work.
Each of the three separate cases filed since 2014 with the NLRB office in Oakland, CA, was settled privately and the NLRB did not file charges against Tesla.
The UAW has asked the Alameda Labor Council, an umbrella organization of local unions in the East Bay area that has campaigned for minimum-wage increases, to help with the organizing drive.
New stresses are being placed upon Tesla employees as preparations for introduction of the Model 3 increase, Shaiken says. The situation is exacerbated by the high cost of living in the Bay Area.
“I don’t think a rollercoaster is going to fix that,” he says.