UAW Looks to Organize Tesla

The union has met with CEO Elon Musk, and UAW President Bob King says the Tesla founder was “very open and said he would respect what the workers wanted. But his operating management has done the opposite.”

Joseph Szczesny

August 7, 2013

4 Min Read
UAW has eye on Teslarsquos Fremont plant
UAW has eye on Tesla’s Fremont plant.

The United Auto Workers has set up an organizing committee at the Tesla Motors plant in Fremont, CA, but says it is meeting with resistance from management despite CEO Elon Musk’s pledge to let the workers decide whether they want union representation.

UAW President Bob King tells WardsAuto his group is actively looking to recruit workers at the Tesla factory, which is building 400 battery-electric vehicles each week. The plant employs about 2,000 people, but not all are production workers the union is targeting, he says.

"It's growing fast," King says of the support for the committee. Establishing a pro-union committee is only the first step in any UAW organizing drive.

The UAW has met with Musk, and King says the Tesla founder was “very open and said he would respect what the workers wanted. But his operating management has done the opposite. The operating management has taken a very anti-union stance.

“We're trying to go back to Elon and say, ‛You have credibility with us. You're doing a great job from many different perspectives. We need you to really intervene so workers have the right to exercise their right to join a union,’” King says at UAW headquarters in Detroit.

Tesla spokeswoman Shanna Hendricks declines to comment on the UAW activity in an email to WardsAuto.

Some of Tesla's employees worked for the UAW-represented New United Motor Mfg. (NUMMI), the General Motors-Toyota joint venture that in 2010 shuttered the plant now serving as the home of Tesla production. GM abandoned the JV in 2009 while it was in bankruptcy, and Toyota said it could not sustain the plant's operations if it wasn't building vehicles for both auto makers.

However, many of the workers who have expressed an interest in a union are not former NUMMI employees, King says.

"They're just workers who feel they would be better off with union protection, the protection of the contract,” he says. “But (the number) is growing fast."

King has tempered the union's old-line militancy by stressing a labor-relations philosophy that is focused more on cooperation and problem-solving.

"We really are working hard at different approaches," he says, acknowledging the UAW also has to overcome the resistance of managers who consider the union an obstacle to a smooth-running industrial plant.

“When we organize at a company, we're going to work together with the management of those operations to make sure they're successful," King says, adding the union recognizes that delivering the best quality and best productivity helps protect jobs in the long run.

The UAW, with help from the German metalworkers union, IG Metall, has active organizing drives under way at the Volkswagen plant in Chattanooga, TN, and Mercedes-Benz operation in Tuscaloosa, AL. It also has been recruiting at a Nissan factory in Canton, MS.

However, so far it has been unsuccessful in organizing workers at any Southern U.S. plants and has not pressed for any elections under King’s direction.

But the San Francisco Bay Area, where the Fremont plant is located, has a long tradition of strong union presence and may present a friendlier atmosphere than does the Southern U.S. In addition, the political climate in California, where union membership has been growing, is much more favorable, notes Kent Wong, a labor-relations expert at UCLA.

Tesla began building its new Model S sedan in Fremont last year. The car has been a hit, becoming the best-selling EV in the U.S. and bringing Musk's once-struggling company its first profits.

The success has made Palo Alto, CA-based Tesla popular on Wall Street, as the value of its stock has soared. It opened Tuesday at $144.75, nearly four times the value of GM shares.

Fremont stopped producing vehicles for Toyota in April 2010, as output of Tacoma pickups was relocated to a factory in San Antonio and North American-market Corolla production was shifted entirely to Canada and Japan.

At its peak production, the NUMMI plant employed 4,700 workers and produced 400,000 Toyotas, Chevrolets and Pontiacs annually.

Tesla purchased the plant for $50 million in 2010 and is hiring additional production workers according to its website. Starting pay is estimated at $16 per hour, which is in line with the wages paid new workers at Chrysler, Ford and GM under their current UAW contracts and equal to pay at Nissan and VW plants in the U.S.

Tesla’s website says its workers also are eligible to receive company stock, which has gained 411% during the past 52 weeks.

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