If there was ever a reason to boycott Tesla, the lawsuit following a decade of complaints and a 32-month investigation would be it. Tesla’s California plant was a hotbed of brutal racism. Black workers were pummeled with slurs daily from managers and supervisors alike.
According to a lawsuit filed Wednesday in Alameda County, California, by the California Department of Fair Employment and Housing (DFEH), thousands of Black workers at Tesla’s Fremont factory were segregated into the most physically demanding positions and forced into the lowest-level contract roles.
The segregated areas where they worked were called the “porch monkey station,” “the slave ship,” and “the plantation,” and that’s not the worst of it. When Black workers complained, they were retaliated against, ignored, denied bonuses, promotions, and other opportunities, the lawsuit reads.
Black workers say many of those who hurled the slurs openly wore racially incendiary tattoos, such as the Confederate flag, and would commonly use the term “crack the whip.” One worker says he “heard these racial slurs as often as 50-100 times a day,” the suit reads.
The suit claims supervisors and managers constantly use the N-word and other racial slurs to refer to them and that swastikas, “KKK,” the N-word, and other racist epithets were etched onto restroom stalls doors, lunch tables, and even factory machinery—which Tesla removed, but at a glacial pace. The workers also said they were paid less, and more often terminated, than other workers. The suit, in part, reads:
“One worker said supervisors complained about where Black workers were assigned, saying, ‘Monkeys work outside,’ and ‘Monkeys need a coat in cold weather.’ A supervisor pointedly asked one Black worker, ‘Do most Africans have bones through their noses?’ While another worker reported that a group of production leads often laughed at her whenever she walked by them. These leads muttered ‘N[ ]’ or ‘Shutup, N[ ]’ to her at first. When she started getting awards for her work performance, these leads openly called her these racial slurs.”
Also in the suit, Tesla’s billionaire CEO Elon Musk, who is planning to move the company’s headquarters from Palo Alto to Austin, Texas, “advised that Tesla workers should be ‘thick-skinned’ about race harassment.”
Tesla responded to the suit with a blog post denying the complaints had merit.
“A narrative spun by the DFEH and a handful of plaintiff firms to generate publicity is not factual proof,” the blog post said, adding that the “Fremont factory has a majority-minority workforce and provides the best paying jobs in the automotive industry to over 30,000 Californians. No company has done more for sustainability or the creation of clean energy jobs than Tesla. Yet, at a time when manufacturing jobs are leaving California.”
The lawsuit is the largest ever brought by the state for racial discrimination, and claims that the company is moving to Texas to “avoid accountability.”
“We hear a lot about ‘structural racism.’ This case is very focused on segregation—the structural barriers to equality for Black employees,” DFEH Director Kevin Kish told The Los Angeles Times. He added that In 2016, the agency investigated 744 cases. By 2020, that had grown to 1,548, Kish said.
Tesla’s Fremont factory is the only nonunion major automotive plant in the nation, and although Black workers make up 20% of factory assemblers, there are no Black executives and just 3% of managers and supervisors are Black, the lawsuit reads.
“Tesla markets its vehicles to the environmentally conscious, socially responsible consumer,” the lawsuit states. “Yet [that] masks the reality of a company that profits from an army of production workers, many of whom are people of color, working under egregious conditions.”
This latest lawsuit is not the only one. A federal jury in San Francisco ordered Tesla to pay $137 million to one Tesla employee over racial discrimination claims.
In his lawsuit, Owen Diaz, who worked as a contract elevator operator at Tesla's factory in Fremont from 2015 to 2016, said he and others were called the regularly N-word, and that he was told to "go back to Africa.” Diaz told NPR he was initially thrilled to be working at Tesla, but quickly discovered he found a "scene straight from the Jim Crow era."
In a statement, Valerie Capers Workman, Tesla’s vice president of people, acknowledged that Diaz, as well as three other witnesses, heard the N-word used, but while “the use of the N-word was not appropriate in the workplace,” it was “used in a ‘friendly’ manner.”
Additionally in 2017, the California Civil Rights Law Group, a Bay Area firm, filed a class-action lawsuit against Tesla on behalf of 1,000 Black workers. The suit is starkly similar to the current DFEH suit.
Musk, who grew up in South Africa, requires workers directly hired to sign arbitration agreements in order to keep complaints secret and without an ability to appeal. After the 2017 class-action suit, it also required workers employed hired through its staffing agency to sign agreements waiving their rights to go to court.
“Ever since Trump started running for president in 2015, there has been this change in attitude by people who harbor racist thoughts and racist beliefs,” Lawrence Organ, the lead attorney in the 2017 suit told the Times. “They think that they can speak out and say whatever they want to say.”
Tesla may be the top EV maker worldwide, but its CEO has a lot of explaining to do.