Tesla workers mobilize for a union, company responds with mass firing

Buffalo, New York

Tesla workers in the Lackawanna plant near Buffalo launched a campaign for a union on Feb. 14. They seek to be represented by Workers United — the same union that successfully organized the first recognized Starbucks union in the U.S., also in Buffalo. Starbucks Workers United is now nearly 300 stores strong.

Members of Tesla Workers United organizing committee.  Credit: Richard Bensinger

Tesla workers on the organizing committee and Workers United members from other companies such as Starbucks leafletted outside the plant on Valentine’s Day; they handed out union-themed valentines with a digital link to sign a union card on the back. Many workers were receptive to the cards, some expressing excitement that a union is finally coming to Tesla.

It wasn’t long after the union effort went public that union busting began. It started with the shadow-banning of the union’s twitter page: @united_tesla. Tesla CEO Elon Musk is now the owner of Twitter, so this comes as no surprise. Just as the company has shut down some normal avenues of communication within the workplace, Tesla is making it harder for workers to garner support from the public via social media.

Even worse, the day after the union was announced, Tesla fired around 30 workers, and more firings followed the next day. The total number of workers fired is upwards of 40, according to the workers that Workers World spoke with. The company claims these firings were part of a “routine performance review” and were decided the previous week before the union effort was announced.

Many workers think this is a convenient lie, due to the fact that the performance reviews happen every six months, with the next one not expected until around March. A number of them recall review results usually coming in late, so for them to come in early is unusual and suspicious. Workers noted the number of workers fired was much higher this time than after previous performance reviews.

Tesla’s intimidation tactics

Workers World newspaper interviewed Al Celli, one of the organizers in the autopilot/tech department, who gave a chilling firsthand account of the firings: “When someone would get fired, they would send management in and tap them on the shoulder. They brought out a box and told them to clear their stuff off the desk. They also got their Tesla accounts immediately shut down, so they couldn’t be contacted.”

When Celli saw a close friend and co-worker approached by management, they asked if they were being fired. Management would not even look them in the eye, just nodded their head “yes.” Celli said, “Some workers even met with their supervisors beforehand and asked if they were going to be fired; they were told no and then fired anyway.”

Tesla has cultivated a dehumanizing atmosphere of fear and anxiety, leaving workers upset after seeing others fired right before their eyes, wondering if they’re to be next. On top of this, workers are forced to continue working through the stressful incident or risk working too slowly and falling short of their performance quotas, which could place them next on the chopping block.

Workers in the union’s organizing committee confirm that a handful of workers fired were committee members. Tesla is likely firing large swathes of workers and not exclusively organizing leaders, which provides the company cover — an excuse to claim that Tesla isn’t discriminating based on union activity, while still being able to strike fear into the workers.

Firing workers who aren’t necessarily union supporters doesn’t make this any less an act of union busting; and if anything, it reinforces the desire many have for a union. “Many people said if they didn’t support the union before, then they sure do now, because their jobs are on the line every single day. Fear of ‘at-will’ employment has really settled in, because now people understand what that really means,” Celli explained.

Workers United has filed Unfair Labor Practice charges with the National Labor Relations Board over the firings.

In addition to the mass firings, Tesla took a page out of the Starbucks playbook and brought in human resources staff from California to surveil the workplace. It is clear that huge multinational capitalist enterprises work together, when it comes to crushing their workers. This is all the more reason for workers to unite across industrial and national lines and work against their common oppressors.

The Tesla organizing committee has received widespread support from Workers United members across the city, as well as other unions and working-class organizations. Workers World Party’s Buffalo branch donated a few dozen high-visibility reflective vests for workers to use during their Valentine’s Day leafletting action. “Overwhelming support from the outside has really lifted the spirits at Tesla,” Celli said. “The best way to support [us] is to follow the social media. Share the workers’ voices, and let people know about what’s going on.”

Follow Tesla Workers United on twitter: @united_tesla and instagram: teslaworkersunited.

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