Tesla Fired Buffalo Workers Seeking to Organize, Union Says

BUFFALO — Barely 24 hours after a group of software workers at a Tesla factory in Buffalo issued a letter declaring their intention to unionize, firings began. And the organizers said it was not a coincidence.

In a filing to the National Labor Relations Board, organizers said at least 18 employees were dismissed Wednesday “in retaliation for union activity and to discourage union activity.” Tesla workers involved in the union campaign said Thursday that the number had grown to 37.

The workers said in interviews that most of those let go had not been involved in the campaign. Typically Tesla fires a small number of workers in March after performance reviews, they said — but they had never seen so many dismissed at once.

“It’s very suspect that all of this started to happen the day after the letter was sent to the company,” Arian Berek, a data annotation specialist involved in the Buffalo organizing committee, said in an interview. She was laid off Wednesday.

Elon Musk, Tesla’s chief executive, has been blunt in his opposition to unions, and the company has a reputation for using hardball tactics against union organizers.

It is illegal for a company to fire workers for so-called protected concerted activity such as seeking to unionize. The Rochester, N.Y., branch of the Workers United union, in its filing, said the firings were unlawful and asked the labor relations board to seek a court order reinstating the workers with back pay.

Late Thursday, Tesla put a statement on its website declaring, “There is a false allegation that Tesla terminated employees in response to a new union campaign.” It said that the dismissals in Buffalo had resulted from a semiannual global review process based on performance, and that those affected were identified for dismissal on Feb. 3.

The plant makes solar panels and components for charging equipment, according to Tesla’s website. It has about 2,000 workers, including 800 who help develop driver-assistance software. Tesla said that the dismissals affected 27 people in the software group, which it called “the Autopilot labeling team,” and that the employees “received prior feedback on their poor performance.” It said only one “officially identified as part of the union campaign.”

The workers pushing for a union are seeking more pay at the factory, where wages start around $19 an hour. Some said they were also motivated by perceived insensitivity from Tesla management.

Ms. Berek said she had become involved in the union because of increasing demands by management and more stringent tracking of employee activities. “It’s gotten very militant over the last few months,” she said. “If you have to go to the bathroom or have some kind of emergency, you can get penalized.”

Company representatives told her that she had been dismissed as part of a drive to accelerate company performance, and also cited absenteeism, Ms. Berek said. They said it had nothing to do with her involvement in the union, she added.

Jaz Brisack, an organizer with Workers United who has been involved in the campaign, said in an interview on Tuesday that workers had decided to go public with their organizing effort partly to make it easier for them to communicate.

Ms. Brisack, who was an early leader of the Starbucks union campaign, said that many of the Tesla workers had complained of being closely monitored at their computers and that being public would give them more freedom to have conversations about the union campaign.

The movement began among the software workers, who are trying to win support from co-workers in manufacturing. There is normally little interaction among employees for the different operations, workers said.

The labor dispute could complicate Tesla’s relationship with President Biden, who on Wednesday praised the company’s decision to open up a portion of its charging network to owners of other electric vehicles.

The move seemed to represent an improvement in the relationship between Mr. Biden and Mr. Musk, who had complained that the administration paid insufficient attention to Tesla during its push for electric vehicle subsidies.

But Mr. Biden has also cast himself as a strong defender of unions. A White House spokeswoman said in a statement Thursday that “the president supports fundamental rights for workers under the National Labor Relations Act, including the right to organize free from intimidation and coercion.”

Companies run by Mr. Musk have been accused in the past of illegally firing employees involved in organizing efforts. But adjudication of employment law can be slow and inefficient.

In 2021, the National Labor Relations Board found that Tesla had illegally fired a worker involved in organizing at the company’s car factory in Fremont, Calif., more than three years earlier, and that Mr. Musk had illegally threatened workers with the loss of stock options if they unionized.

The board ordered Tesla to reinstate the worker with back pay and ordered Mr. Musk to delete a Twitter post making the implied threat. The post appears to still be active as the company appeals the ruling in federal court.

Last year, SpaceX, the rocket manufacturer that Mr. Musk started, fired at least eight employees after they helped to write a letter to management urging the company to distance itself from Mr. Musk’s sometimes inflammatory statements on Twitter and to better enforce the company’s policies on sexual harassment and discrimination.

The employees filed charges of unfair labor practices with the labor board in November; the cases are pending.

After employees file a charge, a regional office of the National Labor Relations Board must investigate. If the regional office finds merit in the accusation, it will give the company a chance to settle the charge and will issue a complaint in the absence of a settlement. The complaint is then litigated before an administrative judge, whose ruling can be appealed to the labor board in Washington, then to federal court.

The process can take years, but the labor board can ask a federal judge to issue an injunction reinstating the workers as the case runs its course. While the board has sometimes been reluctant to use this approach, Jennifer Abruzzo, the agency’s general counsel, issued a memo last year instructing regional offices to make it a more common practice.

Companies facing high-profile union efforts, like Amazon and Starbucks, have disciplined and fired workers involved in organizing over the past few years. Both companies have denied violating labor law and say they have taken the steps as a response to violations of company policies.

“The only reason not to do it is if there’s going to be some really meaningful political and economic consequences for breaking the law — if they’re going to face some kind of really severe customer backlash,” said John Logan, a professor at San Francisco State University who is an expert on anti-union campaigns.

But given Mr. Musk’s reputation as a hard-charging boss who doesn’t hesitate to fire workers he perceives as disloyal, Tesla’s concerns about a possible backlash may be minimal.

“Tesla clearly doesn’t care about its reputation with liberals when it comes to labor relations,” Sam Abuelsamid, an auto industry analyst at Guidehouse Insights, said in an email.

Sumber: www.nytimes.com