Tesla fired dozens of workers at its factory in Buffalo, New York on Wednesday, one day after an organizing committee at the plant sent an email to billionaire chief executive officer Elon Musk informing him of their new unionization campaign.
In a complaint filed with the U.S. National Labor Relations Board (NLRB), the union Workers United accused the electric vehicle manufacturer of illegally terminating the employees "in retaliation for union activity and to discourage union activity," Bloomberg first reported on Thursday. The union asked the NLRB to pursue a federal court injunction "to prevent irreparable destruction of employee rights resulting from Tesla's unlawful conduct."
"These firings are the exact reason why we need a union at Tesla."
The outlet noted that "several of the terminated employees had been involved in labor discussions, according to the union, including at least one who was a member of the organizing committee."
That worker was Arian Berek, who said in a statement provided by the union: "I feel blindsided... I got Covid and was out of the office, then I had to take a bereavement leave. I returned to work, was told I was exceeding expectations, and then Wednesday came along."
Jeff Hirsch, a labor and employment law professor at the University of North Carolina, noted that "timing is often a key factor in retaliation cases like this. And this timing is not good for Tesla."
Berek and 24 other Autopilot analysts at Tesla's Buffalo plant have been organizing with Workers United, a Service Employees International Union affiliate that has won hundreds of union elections at Starbucks locations across the country since December 2021. Its first Starbucks victory was at a cafe in Buffalo just six miles from the Tesla factory.
Jaz Brisack, a Workers United organizer and former barista who was illegally fired by Starbucks after she helped unionize that Buffalo shop, is one of the driving forces behind the new organizing effort at Tesla.
Brisack called Wednesday's terminations "a form of collective retaliation against the group of workers that started this organizing effort."
The firings are "designed to terrify everyone about potential consequences of them organizing, as well as to attempt to cull the herd," she told Bloomberg.
"We're angry. But this won't slow us down or stop us. They want us to be scared, but they just started a stampede."
According to the outlet: "On Wednesday, the day after Bloomberg Newsquoted several Tesla employees discussing their workplace concerns, the company sent staff a message announcing new sections of its policy on workplace technology usage. The changes included a directive to 'protect the confidentiality, integrity, and security of all Tesla business information.'"
Tesla's Buffalo plant employs more than 800 Autopilot analysts who categorize data to support the company's automated driving technology. Tesla fired hundreds of Autopilot workers in California last June, and Musk has called for automating such jobs as evidence mounts that the technology poses massive safety risks.
Workers United aims to unionize the Buffalo factory's Autopilot analysts, hired at roughly $19 per hour to start, along with about 1,000 manufacturing employees. In addition to better job security and higher pay, organizers are seeking to gain decision-making power for workers and to reduce invasive productivity monitoring techniques that workers say are harmful to their health.
"We're angry. But this won't slow us down or stop us," the union tweeted Thursday morning. "They want us to be scared, but they just started a stampede."
Sara Costantino, an Autopilot worker and member of the organizing committee, told Bloomberg that the Wednesday firings are inspiring more workers to support the effort to form Tesla's first-ever union.
“It's pretty clear the message they're sending. They're trying to scare us," Costantino said. "And it's really I think backfiring on them."
"It has really opened people's eyes to the fact that this is why we need a union," she added.
Unlike other major U.S. automakers that were unionized in the decades before a bipartisan neoliberal assault weakened the labor movement, there is currently no union presence at Tesla's factories. Founded in 2003, the relatively new company has thwarted previous organizing efforts.
As More Perfect Union noted on Tuesday, "Workers have tried to unionize Tesla before, and the response has been extreme union-busting, some of it illegal."
The National Labor Relations Act prohibits employers from retaliating against workers for taking collective action to improve workplace conditions, including by forming unions.
NLRB officials ruled in 2021 that Tesla repeatedly violated federal labor law in Fremont, California when it "coercively interrogat[ed]" pro-union workers and fired one of them over his activism. The corporation has denied wrongdoing and is appealing the decision.