Electric car manufacturer Tesla is embroiled in a battle over wages and working conditions at the company’s Bay Area production facility.
Tesla Worker Decries Wages, Working Conditions
In a post released on popular self-publishing site Medium, Jose Moran says it’s “time for Tesla to listen.” Claiming to be a production worker who has spent four years at Tesla’s manufacturing plant in Fremont, California, Moran describes the pride he feels for being on a team largely-responsible for “bringing green cars to the masses.” The company’s working conditions, however, have brought only pain, Moran writes.
Despite the San Francisco area’s astronomical living expenses, the worker says that Tesla pays some of the lowest wages in the auto industry: between $17 and $21 per hour. Taking Moran’s more-generous estimate into account, that wage is still nearly 25% lower than the average hourly earnings across US car manufacturing two years ago. In 2015, the average production worker at an American vehicle plant was paid almost $28 an hour.
After including benefits and profit sharing, US auto workers at companies like Chrysler and Ford, who benefit from strong union-negotiated contracts, were making between $48 and $58 that year, the Detroit Free Press reports. No matter your perspective, Tesla’s hourly wages are far below those offered by other major players in the US auto market.
Long Hours & High Injury Rates, Tesla Employee Claims
But Moran’s grievances go well beyond pay. As the worker relates, Tesla makes enormous demands on its production staff in terms of another valuable resource: time. Most of Moran’s coworkers, numbering over 5,000, “work well over 40 hours a week.” For his own part, Moran says he frequently works between 60 and 70 hours in a week. Much of this overtime is mandatory, according to the worker.
These long hours place a significant burden on the health and well-being of Tesla’s employees, a burden that is only exacerbated by the lack of “ergonomically compatible” machinery the company has chosen to use. Workplace injuries are common, he writes, and many could be prevented with better safety protocols.
Faulty Machine Left Three Workers Burned
At least one California state investigation provides some support to Moran’s claim on safety. In 2014, Tesla was hit with $89,000 in fines over seven safety violations identified by agents at the California Division of Occupational Safety and Health. Six of the infractions were deemed “serious,” the Mercury News reports, related to the failure of an aluminum casting press that left three workers with second- and third-degree burns.
State regulators found that Tesla had failed to maintain the equipment in a safe operating condition, while allowing workers to use the machine while its safety interlock was broken. After California’s findings were announced, Tesla reiterated its commitment to employee safety, saying that the faulty machine had been decommissioned and the injured workers had been compensated over-and-above workers’ compensation requirements.
In recent interviews, Tesla CEO Elon Musk has repeatedly said that the company’s injury rates are less than half the auto industry’s average, a fact Musk said he would prove through an ongoing internal investigation of the facility’s conditions. The results of that investigation, Musk told workers in a leaked company email, found that Tesla had seen a total recordable incident rate under 3.3 since January 1, 2017, “less than half the industry average of 6.7.”
“Forming A Union” Is The Answer
Jose Moran tells a different story. Tesla managers stress efficiency and production goals over safety, he says, making injuries and lost days at work inevitable. Often, Moran writes, “I feel like I am working for a company of the future under working conditions of the past.” In Moran’s mind, the solution to these workplace problems is unionization:
“The issues go much deeper than just fair pay. Injuries, poor morale, unfair promotions, high turnover, and other issues aren’t just bad for workers – they also impact the quality and speed of production. They can’t be resolved without workers having a voice and being included in the process.”
Tesla workers have already “reached out” to the United Auto Workers for help, a move that Moran says has led to some improvements already. In November, Tesla decided to raise its base pay for employees. Despite this apparent concession, reactions from management have shown that any dissent among the ranks will be met with strong resistance, the worker writes.
Company Policy May “Violate” State & Federal Labor Law
Employees were recently made to sign a confidentiality policy, according to Moran, which “threatens consequences if [workers] exercise [their] right to speak out about wages and working conditions.” Soon after the confidentiality policy was announced, Tesla received a letter from five members of the California State assembly, asking the company to loosen its reins on speech.
As Buzzfeed reports, Democratic Assembly members Tony Thurmond, Bill Quirk, Kansen Chu, Rob Bonta and Ash Kalra voiced their concerns over the legality of Tesla’s confidentiality agreement, suggesting that it may violate state and federal labor protections. Jose Moran is thankful for any help from state lawmakers, but he believes that its workers themselves, in banding together, who will ultimately be able to change the culture at Tesla’s only manufacturing facility:
Tesla Attorney Denies Limiting Employee Speech Rights
Tesla stands behind its policy, blaming a “rash of unauthorized leaks to the press and social media” for the need to remind workers of their confidentiality obligations. In a letter to the five State Assembly members, Tesla’s General Counsel Todd Maron said that critical information about upcoming product launches and technology specifications had begun to slip out of the company’s Fremont plant, dealing “significant damage” to Tesla’s business objectives. This is undoubtedly true. Over the last few months, a slew of likely-confidential details about Tesla’s forthcoming entry-level Model 3 sedan have been leaked to the press, including technical specifications.
The confidentiality agreement, which Maron refers to as an “acknowledgment,” was simply meant to prevent unauthorized disclosures in the future, the attorney writes. Tesla had no intention of limiting its workers rights, Maron says, especially when those rights protect the ability to speak out on wages and working conditions. In fact, the confidentiality agreement is entirely focused on limiting discussions of “commercial, proprietary and trade secret information,” the attorney claims, not on the company’s labor practices. The agreement’s precise text is not publicly-available, but a snippet included in Moran’s response to lawmakers states:
“unless otherwise allowed by law […] you must not, for example, discuss confidential information with anyone outside of Tesla, take or post photos or make video or audio recordings inside Tesla facilities, forward work emails outside of Tesla or to a personal email account, or write about your work in any social media, blog, or book.”
Moran suggests that any protections outlined in the National Labor Relations Act or California Labor Code would clearly fit under the “unless otherwise allowed by law” umbrella.
“This Guy Was Paid […] To Agitate For A Union”
Tesla has also come out against Moran’s broader range of allegations, saying that, while mandatory overtime is sometimes required, the company’s demands on workers are “dropping almost every week.” As for low wages, billionare founder and CEO of Tesla Elon Musk argues that the base pay offered at Tesla is higher than wages for unionized workers in the United Automobile, Aerospace and Agricultural Implement Workers of America (UAW), one of the country’s largest unions.
The company’s most dramatic allegation, however, involves Jose Moran. In a series of private tweets to Gizmodo, Musk accused Moran of being a paid shill for the UAW: “our understanding is that this guy was paid by the UAW to join Tesla and agitate for a union. He doesn’t really work for us, he works for the UAW.”
Did Union Woes Kill Vehicle Manufacturing Plant?
Musk continued, condemning the UAW itself for destroying the previous owner of Tesla’s manufacturing facility, which lies across the San Francisco Bay from Palo Alto. “Frankly, I find this attack to be morally outrageous,” Musk wrote, “Tesla is the last car company left in California, because costs are so high. The UAW killed NUMMI and abandoned the workers at our Fremont plant in 2010. They have no leg to stand on.”
NUMMI, or National United Motor Manufacturing, Inc., was a manufacturing facility operated by General Motors and Toyota until being closed in 2010. While both GM and Toyota pulled out of the joint venture, neither company cited union payroll concerns as the cause of their withdrawal. According to TheDrive, GM decided to end production in California after being hit by the recession. Toyota reduced manufacturing company-wide, moving production from the NUMMI plant to under-utilized facilities in Texas.
But it’s also true that Tesla played a primary role in reviving California’s decimated auto manufacturing industry, re-opening the Fremont plant later in 2010. NUMMI, or the Tesla Factory as the facility is now known, remains the company’s only vehicle manufacturing facility. At the industry’s peak, car manufacturers with plants in California employed around 42,500 workers, Bloomberg reports. Today, Tesla is California’s largest manufacturing employer, regardless of industry.
Auto Union, Tesla Worker Deny Connection
While officials at UAW have acknowledged reaching out to workers at Tesla, they say any allegations that Jose Moran is under the employ of union organizers is ridiculous. “Mr. Moran is not and has not been paid by the UAW,” the union wrote in a statement released on February 10, 2017, calling the allegation “fake news.” Jose Maron, for that matter, is “disappointed” by Musk’s accusations. After denying the allegation that he is a paid UAW operative, Maron told reporters at TheDrive:
“Workers go above and beyond for the company. I’m just voicing my opinion. It’s a truthful opinion, and a lot of workers are disappointed with working conditions – we do have low pay. I like the company and hold [Elon Musk] in high regard. He’s a genius. Being around for four and a half years helping him get to this position, it’s disappointing.”
Reporting from CNN, however, suggests that Moran is currently being represented by Storefront Political Media – a company that contracts for the United Automobile, Aerospace and Agricultural Implement Workers of America. Questioned by reporters, UAW spokesperson Brian Rothenberg refrained from providing specifics on how the union may be supporting Jose Moran. “We always provide assistance to workers who are interested,” Rothenberg said.