Should liberals support an electric car company that's anti-union?
Tesla sits at ground zero for a coming reckoning within American liberalism
From one perspective, Elon Musk is liberals' dream entrepreneur. He's a science nerd and a romantic visionary in the progressive firmament of California. He's the man who not only brought electric cars back from the dead, but made them cool. Tesla, the car company Musk founded, is gearing up for mass-production of a $35,000 model, which hopes to bring his vision for a climate-change-fighting car to the masses.
But some of Musk's employees tell a different story.
Recent reports in The Daily Beast and The Guardian tell of workers enduring tough conditions, long hours, and frequent injuries in Tesla's famous plant in Fremont, California. Since 2014, ambulances reportedly rushed there over 100 times to deal with "fainting spells, dizziness, seizures, abnormal breathing, and chest pains, according to incident reports obtained by The Guardian. Hundreds more were called for injuries and other medical issues." Unsurprisingly, some of these same workers are pushing to unionize Tesla's workforce, with the support of the United Automobile Workers (UAW) union.
Musk and Tesla's management have staunchly resisted and criticized that idea.
The law forbids employers from directly threatening or retaliating against employees for supporting a union drive. But owners and management are still perfectly free to express their opinions to workers. Given the resources they wield — and their control over the workplace floor as a social space where workers talk to each other — this anti-union messaging can still have pretty overwhelming force. "Every time we go out there and try to hand out flyers, security comes and talks to us for 20 to 30 minutes, takes our badges, makes sure we're employees of the factory," Alan Ochoa, a pro-union Tesla worker, told The Daily Beast. "Sometimes people from HR come, and they don't hold back on their opinions on the matter."
The dispute has also spilled over into whether Tesla broke the law. The UAW has filed four complaints against Tesla, claiming it violated the National Labor Relations Act by "intimidating [and] creating the appearance of surveillance and conducting surveillance on [employees] and others for their union activities and/or union sentiments," and for “instruct[ing] employees that they were not allowed to pass out any literature unless it was pre-approved by the employer." The company has denied the charges as "entirely without merit."
This murky he-said-she-said quality is pretty common in disputes between labor and management/ownership, and in Tesla's own internal battle.
Back in February, a pro-union worker named Jose Moran wrote a blog post detailing how long work hours, frequent injuries, and mandatory overtime are still a big problem at Tesla. The post apparently stung Musk enough that he personally issued a point-by-point rebuttal in a long company email.
For instance, The American Prospect reported that wages at the factory run from $17 to $21 an hour — quite a bit less than the national average of $29.04 for auto-manufacturing. That Tesla employees often have to deal with California's sky-high costs-of-living only exacerbates the problem. The company counters that it shares stock with employees, and that total compensation is actually better than the industry average when the stock is factored in. "A Tesla team member earned between $70,000 and $100,000 more in total compensation than the employees at other U.S. auto companies!" Musk wrote in his response to Moran. The workers counter that the stock doesn't fully vest until they've put in at least four years of work — a problem when your bills arrive on a monthly basis.
Then there's the matter of long hours and workplace injuries. One thing Musk and everyone else seems to agree on is that the problems were definitely bad several years ago. Employees used to put in 14-hour days, but policy changes and the hiring of a third shift eventually cut that down to eight hours. (Musk even mentioned that he slept on the factory floor in a sleeping bag in 2016 as a show of solidarity.)
A study commissioned by pro-union workers, drawing on Bureau of Labor Statistic data, found that Tesla had an injury rate 31 percent higher than the industry's average in 2015 — the last year for which comprehensive data is available. Its serious injury rate was 103 percent higher. A Tesla spokesperson responded that "we may have had some challenges in the past," but safety improvements cut injuries by 30 percent in 2016. The spokesperson also said that as of the first quarter of 2017, the company's total injury rate was 32 percent better than the industry average.
Pro-union critics are skeptical, saying the data for 2016 and 2017 is too preliminary to be fully trustworthy.
Tesla workers are also reportedly sometimes put on light duty to accommodate their injuries and ongoing pain. But this comes with lower pay: an effective — even if arguably unintentional — punishment for bringing up the injury in the first place.
Finally, there's the looming production grind needed to meet the massive order list for Tesla's newest model, which could drive the company's injury rate and hours back up again: "There's no realistic way than going up through 12 hours," said Tesla employee Michael Sanchez.
The point here is not to try and reach some objective determination as to who's right and who's wrong. Both sides have relatable stories. Indeed, they're flip sides of the same coin: They show how the strengths of the tech visionary can also be their great weakness. The pro-union workers see themselves as being driven into work hours and conditions beyond the bounds of decency by Musk's vision for the future. Musk views himself as a scrappy entrepreneur, balancing on razor-thin finances, trying to break into a sclerotic industry dominated by massive players, all in the name of saving the planet.
But perhaps the irresolvable Rashomon-esque nature of the dispute is itself arguably the best case for unionization. We're all human, none of us are perfect, and we all tell the story of our experiences through inevitably biased lenses. If Musk and his workers can tell such different tales about the evolution of the same company, is that not evidence they should all have a say in setting the terms by which that company operates?
There was a time, decades ago, when the American left and the labor movement aimed to make the workplace such a democratic space. Today, that dream is mostly dead: That ownership and management give orders, and employees obey, is basically taken as the natural order of things.
In some ways, this can be a boon for liberalism. As Google recently demonstrated, unquestioned authority can be an effective tool for enforcing progressive social norms. Or in Musk's case, an effective tool for driving forward the progressive dream of a green economy reliant on zero-carbon-emitting electric cars. These are both entirely worthy goals. But should liberals wield the power of the boss in pursuing them?
As discontent mounts — against inequality and stagnation, and against the immense power that employers hold over their workers — the old dream will almost certainly have to be resurrected. In that way, Elon Musk sits at ground zero for a coming reckoning within American liberalism.