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Federal Labor Board Claims Tesla Intimidated Workers Trying to Unionize

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Tesla's auto assembly plant in Fremont is experiencing more labor woes. (Getty Images)

The labor dispute at Tesla continues to heat up. The National Labor Relations Board, or NLRB, claims that Tesla illegally intimidated workers who are trying unionize at its Fremont plant.

The NLRB is a government agency that safeguards workers rights to unionize. Three Tesla workers lodged a series of complaints against the electric car maker.

In one incident, a Tesla employee said he was restrained by a security guard as he was passing out flyers and pamphlets about unionizing with the United Auto Workers. The employee says he wasn't on the clock but participating in the activity during his free time.

An employee claimed that in March, during a pre-shift meeting, a supervisor threatened to fire any employees that continued to pass out flyers not approved by Tesla.

Employees claim these actions show Tesla is trying to intimidate and coerce factory workers to stop unionizing. If true, the actions break federal law according to the National Labor Relations Act, said Bill Sokol, a labor lawyer and lecturer at San Francisco State University.


“This is a new age car company making a new age car but it's engaging in same old union busting tactics that GM, Ford and Chrysler used almost a century ago in the Great Depression,” Sokol said.

Last Thursday, the National Labor Relations Board found merit in the employee's claims and filed a complaint against Tesla.

The NLRB also claims that the confidentiality agreement that Tesla employees must sign restricts employees' ability to unionize. The agreement doesn't allow workers to talk about the nature of their work or their work conditions at the Fremont plant. Such non-disclosure agreements, or NDAs, have come under heightened scrutiny in Silicon Valley. Critics say NDAs also make it harder for employees to pursue workplace discrimination cases.

Tesla’s workers have been actively unionizing since the beginning of the year with the United Auto Workers. They have been claiming unsafe working conditions as well as low pay.

Tesla CEO Elon Musk voiced his opposition to unionizing Tesla's Fremont plant in an email to employees in February. He claimed the company’s total recordable incident rate since January 1st is under 3.3, which is less than half the industry average of 6.7. He also offered to install company perks like free frozen yogurt and a roller coaster connecting buildings together.

“It’s going to get crazy good,” Musk wrote in the memo.

But a report published by the advocacy group Worksafe said nonfatal reported injuries at Tesla's Fremont plant actually were 31 percent higher in 2015 than the industry as a whole (data for 2016 has not yet been released).

In a statement to KQED regarding the NLRB complaint, a Tesla spokesperson said the charges were baseless and blamed the United Auto Workers for coercing employees to unionize.

“As we approach Labor Day weekend, there’s a certain irony in just how far the UAW has strayed from the original mission of the American labor movement, which once advocated so nobly for the rights of workers and is the reason we recognize this important holiday. Faced with declining membership, an overwhelming loss at a Nissan plant earlier this month, corruption charges that were recently leveled against union leaders who misused UAW funds, and failure to gain traction with our employees, it’s no surprise the union is feeling pressured to continue its publicity campaign against Tesla. For seven years, the UAW has used every tool in its playbook: misleading and outright false communications, unsolicited and unwelcomed visits to the homes of our employees, attempts to discredit Tesla publicly in the media, and now another tactic that has been used in every union campaign since the beginning of time – baseless ULP filings that are meant only to generate headlines. These allegations, which have been filed by the same contingent of union organizers who have been so outspoken with media, are entirely without merit. We will obviously be responding as part of the NLRB process.”

Tesla must respond to the NLRB complaint by September 14, 2017. The company has a right to a trial with a federal administrative law judge.


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