The United Auto Workers has sent organizers to help employees organize Tesla Inc.’s electric-car plant, a move that -- if successful -- would give the union the presence it’s long sought beyond legacy U.S. automakers’ factories.
A group of Tesla workers have contacted the union to seek assistance organizing, and the UAW is in discussion with them, Dennis Williams, the union’s president, told reporters during a roundtable Thursday in Detroit. He said union organizers have received complaints about long hours and potentially unsafe conditions at Tesla’s plant in Fremont, California.
“We have organizers out there,” Williams said. “I do have a guy I hired who is a labor organizer but there’s nothing abnormal about it.”
Organizing the Tesla plant would be a significant victory for labor at a time of shrinking U.S. union membership. The total share of U.S. workers who belong to a union fell to 10.7 percent last year, a record low. Boeing Co. employees in South Carolina voted overwhelmingly against unionization Wednesday, dealing a blow to the embattled labor movement’s efforts to expand its ranks under President Donald Trump.
Williams said the UAW has been receiving calls from Tesla workers for about six to eight months and started sending a “skeleton crew” of organizers to gauge interest. If there’s enough, the union could proceed with a campaign, he said.
A self-identified worker at the Tesla plant, Jose Moran, published a blog post last week on Medium saying he and other employees were talking about unionizing and had contacted the UAW for support.
Moran, a production associate on Body Line 1 within the factory, alleged challenging working conditions and organizational issues within a factory that’s under the microscope like never before. The facility, which now makes the Model S and X, is pausing production for a week this month to prepare for the Model 3, Tesla’s most affordable electric car and the linchpin of Chief Executive Officer Elon Musk’s ambitions to reach the mainstream auto market.
Musk has refuted Moran’s claims, calling them “morally outrageous” and alleging Moran is on the UAW’s payroll in Twitter messages sent to the tech blog Gizmodo. The union responded last week by calling Musk’s allegations that it hired Moran “fake news.”
“I thought it was bizarre that all that took place,” Williams said Thursday. “It’s uncharacteristic of Elon to attack his employees as quickly as he did.”
While Palo Alto, California-based Tesla has flagged to investors for years that higher costs or work stoppages related to union activities are potential risks, the UAW may face long odds. The union has largely failed for years to organize Japanese, German or Korean auto plants in the U.S.
The UAW used to represent workers at the Fremont plant when then-General Motors Corp. and Toyota Motor Corp. occupied the factory as a joint venture. Williams said the plant’s history as a union facility could make organization easier, since he said workers there know a union can “correct problems” like safety and line speed.
Whether the Tesla plant will unionize “will be determined by the interest of employees inside the facility,” Williams said.