Tesla Hit With Labor Complaint; United Auto Workers Joins

By William Vogeler, Esq. on September 05, 2017 | Last updated on March 21, 2019

Elon Musk gets public applause for being a futurist, but in some ways his company seems backwards.

According to a complaint filed by the National Labor Relations Board, Tesla keeps workers from talking about union activities, employee safety, and other issues by pressuring them and requiring confidentiality agreements. For a company that has been accused of exploiting cheap labor and overworking employees before, it is not a good look.

As one Tesla factory worker reportedly said, "Everything feels like the future but us." In-house counsel might ask, among other labor questions, "Is our confidentiality agreement up to date?"

United Auto Workers

The UAW is party to the NLRB complaint, and reportedly has been working to unionize Tesla to protect workers. Musk has railed against charges in the past, and company lawyers said they are "without merit."

"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 (unfair labor practice) filings that are meant only to generate headlines," Tesla said in a statement.

Musk has taken it personally in the past. When newspapers reported that Tesla contractors used low-paid workers -- paying them as little as $5 an hour -- Musk jumped on it.

"Sounds like the wrong thing happened on many levels," he Tweeted. "Will investigate and make it right."

Old Story, Same Company

The new labor complaint can be traced back to 2010, when Tesla bought a factory in Fremont, California. In February this year, a Tesla employee complained of poor working conditions there in an online publication.

Musk dismissed the claims, telling Gizmodo, "Our understanding is that this guy was paid by the UAW to join Tesla and agitate for a union." He also blamed the UAW for killing the company that sold Tesla the factory.

If a company is getting bad press on employee issues, it may pay general counsel to keep current on the news and the law -- before the NLRB or another government agency gets involved.

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