Elon Musk Denies Firing Tesla Staff After Unionisation Attempt

Tesla - Shutterstock - © Hattanas Kumchai

Union alleges Tesla fired 30 plus supporters of recent unionisation attempt, but Musk says decision was taken before this

Elon Musk and Tesla have taken the unusual step of responding to a trade union allegation that the EV maker had allegedly fired 30 staffers supporting unionisation efforts.

Earlier this week both Bloomberg and Reuters had reported that Tesla was facing its first unionisation movement in the United States, with staff in New York state launching a unionisation drive.

The Tesla staff who label data for Tesla’s Autopilot technology at the company’s plant in Buffalo, New York, had sent an email to Musk early Tuesday confirming their intent to unionise with the Workers United Upstate New York.

The union is to be called the Tesla Workers United Union.

Union busting?

The Tesla staff said they are seeking better pay and job security, alongside a reduction in production pressures that they say have been harmful to their health. They asked Tesla management to respect their right to organise a union and called on the EV maker to sign the Fair Election Principles.

But it was speculated that this declaration could led to a showdown with CEO Elon Musk, who in the past has made no secret of his opposition to trade unions, despite Telsa having unions outside America.

Now CNN has reported, citing the union, that one day after the unionisation drive was announced, Tesla fired more than 30 supporters of the nascent union at its Buffalo facility.

CNN reported that the Tesla Workers United union has filed a complaint with the National Labor Relations Board alleging the company illegally fired its supporters.

The complaint lists the names of 18 employees it alleges were fired “in retaliation for union activity and to discourage union activity.”

But CNN quoted a a statement from the union that said that more than 30 employees were fired. It reportedly said the firings came on the heels of the union organising effort announced earlier this week.

Retaliation move?

“I feel blind sided,” said Arian Berek, one of the fired employees was quoted as saying in the union’s statement. “I got Covid and was out of the office, then I had to take a bereavement leave. I returned to work, was told I was exceeding expectations and then Wednesday came along. I strongly feel this is in retaliation to the committee announcement and it’s shameful.”

According to CNN, the people fired worked on labeling data collected as part of Tesla’s Autopilot technology.

Elon Musk has previously praised the work of this group, saying that it is the “Holy Grail” of the company’s self-driving technology.

But union supporters reportedly objected to Tesla’s productivity expectations they describe as “unfair, unattainable, ambiguous and ever changing.” They also object to the company allegedly monitoring their keystrokes to measure their work.

The union has said it is angry and it won’t stop its unionisation efforts.

Tesla response

Tesla has no media relations department and rarely responds to media reports, but it has hit back at the union with a blog post entitled “In Response to False Allegations.

“There is a false allegation that Tesla terminated employees in response to a new union campaign,” Tesla said, before attributing the firings to poor performance reviews of the staff concerned.

Tesla says it conducts performance review cycles every six months around the world, and the “most recent performance review cycle was from July 2022 through December 2022.”

It notified managers on 13 December 2022 “that exits for low performers would start the week of February 12, 2023.”

“Approximately 4 percent of the employees on the Autopilot labeling team in Buffalo were exited as a result of this performance review cycle,” said Tesla. “The employees let go as part of this process received prior feedback on their poor performance from their managers over the course of the review period. Despite feedback, they did not demonstrate sufficient improvement.”

“The impacted employees were identified on February 3, 2023, which was well before the union campaign was announced,” Tesla stated. “We became aware of organising activities approximately 10 days later. We learned in hindsight that one out of the 27 impacted employees officially identified as part of the union campaign. This exercise pre-dated any union campaign.”

Tesla has previously been accused of illegally firing union supporters at its Fremont gigafactory in California.

Elon Musk’s anti-union stance was demonstrated when the US National Labor Relations Board ordered him to delete a 2018 tweet saying employees would lose their stock options if they formed a union.

The tweet is still online as of 17 February 2023.