Photographer: David Paul Morris/Bloomberg

Tesla Workers Contact UAW to Unionize Musk’s Lone Auto Plant

  • Factory needs better organization, employee writes on Medium
  • Tesla has told investors union activity risks raising costs

Tesla Inc. workers at its only auto plant have contacted the United Auto Workers to seek assistance with forming a union, according to a Medium post published by a man claiming to be a factory employee.

“I think our management team would agree that our plant doesn’t function as well as it could, but until now they’ve underestimated the value of listening to employees,” Jose Moran, who identifies himself as a worker for four years at the plant in Fremont, California, wrote Thursday. “We need better organization in the plant, and I, along with many of my coworkers, believe we can achieve that by coming together and forming a union.”

Chief Executive Officer Elon Musk is preparing the factory that’s now making the Model S and X electric vehicles to begin producing the more affordable Model 3 sedan around July. While Palo Alto, California-based Tesla has flagged to investors higher costs or work stoppages related to union activities as risks, the UAW has largely failed to organize Japanese, German or Korean auto plants in the U.S. The union used to represent workers at the Fremont plant when then-General Motors Corp. and Toyota Motor Corp. occupied the factory.

“We have a long history of engaging directly with our employees on the issues that matter to them, and we will continue to do so because it’s the right thing to do,” a Tesla spokesperson said in an e-mailed statement Thursday.

Representatives for the UAW didn’t immediately respond to requests for comment on the Medium post. Bergen Kenny, a consultant to labor unions with San Francisco-based Storefront Political Media, sent the Medium post to Bloomberg News.

Wages, Conditions

In his Medium post, Moran cites “excessive” mandatory overtime and says poor ergonomics related to machinery within the factory are causing unnecessary injuries. Six of eight people on his work team were on medical leave at the same time a few months ago, he said.

Most Tesla production workers earn $17 to $21 an hour, Moran wrote. The average United Auto Workers member makes about $28 an hour, according to the Center for Automotive Research.

“This worker and possibly many more are proud to work at Tesla, and they think a union will make it a better company and a better place to work,” Harley Shaiken, a labor professor at University of California at Berkeley, said by phone.

Five members of the California State Assembly, led by Tony Thurmond, raised concern with Tesla about a policy workers had been asked to sign requiring that wage and working conditions should be kept confidential. Moran referenced the January letter in his post and Kenny provided a copy to Bloomberg News.

‘Unauthorized Leaks’

In a response letter, Tesla said it wasn’t prohibiting discussion of wages or working conditions. Its confidentiality policy related to “a rash of unauthorized leaks to the press and social media about product launches, specifications, and improvements -- information that is critical to Tesla’s continued growth and success,” according to the letter.

Tesla manufactures all of its vehicles from the plant in Fremont. The company delivered about 76,000 cars worldwide last year and aims to produce 500,000 annually by 2018.

“The tone was positive and constructive about the company, and very genuinely expressed real grievances on the shop floor,” Shaiken said of the Medium post. “Those grievances don’t go away when you start producing cars in much higher volumes.”

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