Workers at a Buffalo, New York, Tesla factory are seeking to form the company’s first union after previous organizing efforts have run up against union-busting that in some cases came personally and publicly from Elon Musk. In 2021, the National Labor Relations Board found that Tesla had illegally fired a union activist and that a tweet from Musk had illegally threatened workers with the loss of stock options if they unionized. Tesla is appealing that ruling, which came from two Republicans and one Democrat.
The Buffalo union effort is led by workers who label data for Tesla’s Autopilot system, work that Musk has said he hopes to automate in the future. “People are tired of being treated like robots,” organizing committee member Al Celli told Bloomberg’s Josh Eidelson, citing keystroke-tracking surveillance of their work that makes some workers hesitate to take needed bathroom breaks. The starting pay for these 800 workers is around $19 an hour. They also hope to organize the 1,000 manufacturing workers at the factory, which produces solar panels and charging equipment components.
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The fact that this is happening in Buffalo is significant. Tesla Workers United is affiliated with Workers United, the Service Employees International Union affiliate that has had success with Starbucks Workers United—another organizing effort that kicked off in Buffalo.
Meanwhile, while we wait for him to fire up the union-busting, what has Elon Musk been up to at his other companies?
SpaceX has recently threatened to restrict Ukraine's use of Starlink, its satellite internet service, as Ukraine fights off Russia’s invasion. Specifically, company president Gwynne Shotwell last week suggested that SpaceX would restrict use of Starlink to operate drones. When U.S. astronaut Scott Kelly (the twin brother of Sen. Mark Kelly) challenged Musk on that on Twitter, arguing “Defense from a genocidal invasion is not an offensive capability. It’s survival,” Musk responded, “Starlink is the communication backbone of Ukraine,” but SpaceX “will not enable escalation of conflict that may lead to WW3.”
In translation, if Elon Musk and Gwynne Shotwell decide that Russia is getting too upset about Ukraine’s use of Starlink, they will limit it, and with it, Ukraine’s ability to defend itself. All in the name of world peace or something. This is not the first time Musk has shown that Russia and its supporters have his ear—last fall, he tweeted his plan for peace between the two countries, which turned out to involve massive concessions by Ukraine, including ceding the Crimea Peninsula to Russia.
At Twitter, last week Musk fired an engineer for explaining to him that engagement on his tweets wasn’t down because the company he owns had shadowbanned him, it was down because … people were less interested in hearing from him than they had been at some points. (Sick of it, even.) Then he dedicated a significant amount of the company’s hollowed-out staff time to figure out how to boost engagement on his own tweets, with the result that many Twitter users are now complaining that their “for you” tab is flooded with Musk, who is busy tweeting out gems like the one at right.
Musk has also reinstated a series of previously banned accounts, including white nationalists, spreaders of COVID disinformation, conspiracy theorists, and other types of far-right trolls, and he’s not hesitating to cash in on it, running ads alongside their disinformation and hateful content.
The Buffalo workers are calling on Tesla to adopt a fair elections pledge that would prevent it from retaliating against workers for union activity (which is illegal, but many employers do it anyway because the penalties are so minimal). But given Musk’s anti-union history, and his aggressively right-wing, ego-first recent positions, that seems like a faint hope. Previous union drives in other locations never got as far as a vote. Will the combination of the Buffalo union culture, successful union efforts at places like Starbucks and two Apple stores, and Musk’s dramatically changed public image propel this organizing effort to greater success?
Musk follows divide-the-nation-for-profit model, raking in ad revenues via restored far-right trolls
Don’t buy a Tesla unless you’re okay with Black workers being brutalized by racist managers