Tesla organizers say they were fired a day after launching union drive

Several employees at a Tesla facility in Buffalo, New York, have been fired the day after they announced a union drive, leading to claims of retaliation and condemnation from one of New York’s senators.

Tesla Workers United said in a statement Thursday that workers received an email around 7 p.m. on Wednesday which told them of a new policy that prohibits them from recording workplace meetings without all participants’ permission. TWU said that the policy violates federal labor law and flouts New York’s one-party consent law to record conversations.

“I feel blindsided, 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,” organizing committee member Arian Berek, who is one of the fired employees, said in a statement. “I strongly feel this is in retaliation to the committee announcement, and it’s shameful.”

Complaint filed

The Rochester Regional Joint Board of Workers United has filed a complaint against Tesla with the National Labor Relations Board, accusing the electric vehicle maker of unfair labor practices.

In the complaint, the group lists the names of several employees who were part of the factory’s autopilot department, who were fired. The group said it believes Tesla “terminated these individuals in retaliation for union activity and to discourage union activity.” It is asking the NLRB for injunctive relief “to prevent irreparable destruction of employee rights resulting from Tesla’s unlawful conduct.”

Under federal labor law, it’s illegal to fire workers for trying to form a union or taking other steps to improve their working conditions. The complaint will now be investigated by the NLRB, which can go to court to get the workers reinstated if it determines that Tesla broke the law.

Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, a Democrat, condemned Tesla’s actions. “This must be investigated immediately — and I will be watching this case closely,” she said on Twitter.

“We’re angry. But this won’t slow us down or stop us. They want us to be scared, but they just started a stampede,” the union said in a tweet. “These firings are the exact reason why we need a union. We believe we can do this, but more importantly we believe we WILL do this.”

As part of union organizing efforts, the Tesla Workers United organizing committee said in a letter to management Tuesday that employees are seeking a voice on the job at the plant in Buffalo and want to “build an even more collaborative environment that will strengthen the company.”

Tesla CEO Elon Musk has taken a hard line against organized labor, despite an invitation to the United Auto Workers union to hold an organizing vote at Tesla’s factory in Fremont, California.

In 2021, Tesla was ordered by the National Labor Relations Board to make Musk delete a 2018 tweet in which the board said Musk unlawfully threatened to take away employees’ stock options if they chose to be represented by the UAW. (The tweet remains on the platform.) Musk has also referred to unions as “just another corporation.”

The Tesla gigafactory, which makes solar panels and other renewable energy technology, is not far away from a Starbucks location where workers voted to unionize last year.

Tesla workers earn far less than their counterparts who are unionized with the United Auto Workers, said Cathy Creighton, director of Cornell University’s Industrial and Labor Relations Buffalo Co-Lab and a former field attorney for the NLRB. In an email, Creighton noted that New York gave Tesla $750 million in taxpayer funds to build the Buffalo plant, which sits on the site of a former Republic Steel plant, but didn’t impose union or wage requitements on the company. 

“It is not enough to give billionaires subsidies and hope that they share the wealth with their workforce. New Yorkers should expect that jobs they are subsidizing are jobs that are well paid, with good benefits, where employees can share in their employer’s profitability,” Creighton said.

An email was sent to Tesla seeking comment, but bounced back as undeliverable. It has been widely reported that Tesla has disbanded its media relations team.

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