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Power Trip

Tesla’s Union Battle Is About the Future of Our Planet

Want a better world? Don’t leave workers behind.

Photo by Mason Trinca for The Washington Post/Getty Images

Workers at Tesla are fighting for a little more power. And Elon Musk is hitting back, hard.

Tesla’s billionaire CEO has been accused of using shady tactics to squash a union drive at Tesla’s auto plant in Fremont, California, which was named one of the most dangerous car factories in the country in 2016. Employees say Musk discouraged them from forming a union, sometimes through his Twitter account, and then illegally retaliated against workers who tried to organize. The National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) is currently reviewing the case, which opened with a hearing in June.

This case isn’t just about Tesla. It’s about the future of an industry that sees itself as key to addressing the climate crisis. Clean tech companies peddle a progressive vision of a low-carbon future, but Tesla’s anti-union fervor suggests that some in the industry have lost sight of their work’s bigger point. Keeping greenhouse gases out of the atmosphere isn’t just about averting planetary catastrophe, it’s about creating a world in which everyone feels safe, lives decently, and is treated with fairness and respect. That means protecting workers.

Autoworkers are used to getting a say, not a chocolate swirl.

Musk, who recently stepped down as Tesla’s chairman following a number of public blowups, denies he’s broken any labor laws. But it’s pretty clear he doesn’t like unions. He once said “unionization would be antithetical to Tesla’s mission” and implied that he would resolve safety issues in Tesla’s auto plants if workers quit their union campaign, which is totally illegal, according to the NLRB’s lawyers.

This hostility to unions is classic Silicon Valley. So is Musk’s belief that perks — stock options, latte taps, ping pong tables — are a meaningful substitute for worker power. Just weeks after worker Jose Moran detailed safety problems at Tesla’s Fremont factory in a 2017 Medium post, Musk promised to install frozen yogurt stands on the factory floor.

This attitude is part of what makes the tech industry what it is: flexible, disruptive, and rich. But Tesla isn’t just a tech company. It’s an electric car company in a world that needs more electric cars. And its labor problems are what happens when Silicon Valley creeps into industries like automotive manufacturing and electricity generation, where workers are used to getting a say, not a chocolate swirl. For decades, energy and transport workers have organized, fought, and won the right to sit at the bargaining table with their bosses e.g. the Battle of Blair Mountain, where coal miners suffered bullets and beatings for the right to unionize and the 1945 General Motors strike.

Tesla’s labor practices aren’t so unusual among the supposedly progressive clean tech companies. Despite casting themselves as hipper than the dinosaurs of the fossil fuel age, low-carbon tech firms prioritize flexibility and usually don’t hire unionized workers, according to experts. Big utility-scale companies sometimes have long-standing agreements with labor unions, but among the new tech firms, “the rate of unionization is very, very low”, Julian Spector, who covers renewable energy at Green Tech Media, told Medium, adding that there’s no comprehensive data on union density in the industry.

So, while transitioning away from fossil fuels will create heaps of new jobs, according to proponents, industry trends suggest a truth that gets lost in enthusiasm over the green economy: green jobs aren’t always good jobs.

Indeed, workers at Tesla’s Fremont plant make less than the national average among autoworkers. Meanwhile, rooftop solar installers in California make much less than their unionized counterparts at utility companies, and are often treated worse. When Sungevity started hemorrhaging cash in 2017, the solar sales company abruptly fired most of its non-union workforce and allegedly withheld their severance pay, breaking labor laws. SolarCity, a solar panel company owned by Tesla, has been blasted for underpaying employees.

Photo by David Butow/Corbis/Getty Images

This isn’t just a labor issue; the squabbling could be ruinous for the planet. Our climate crisis, largely caused by burning fossil fuels, has made companies like Tesla and Sunrun star players in the battle for the biosphere. We need to move away from gas-powered cars and coal-fired electricity, and doing so depends on clean tech firms’ ability to outcompete the fossil fuel industry.

This means empowering workers, because while non-unionized labor is cheap, it doesn’t pay to screw over workers in the long run, according to Carol Zabin, director of the Green Economy Program at UC Berkeley’s Center for Labor Research and Education.

“I don’t think the industry is really considering the value of workforce representation for their own businesses, much less the role unions play in the broader economy to combat inequality,” Zabin said.

Green jobs aren’t always good jobs.

At the heart of the issue is how clean tech companies see themselves. Despite operating in capital- and labor-intensive industries, like construction and automotive manufacturing, many clean tech companies see themselves as “software startups that contract for the hardware installation,” Spector said. And among startups, anti-union sentiment is like a first principle.

Robert Noyce, co-founder of Intel, once warned that “remaining non-union is essential for survival for most of our companies.” Some of Silicon Valley’s most successful firms have minted money by finding creative ways to break organized labor, often by “subcontracting away workers’ rights,” according to Zabin.

Take Amazon. Despite caving to pressure to raise its minimum wage to $15 an hour, the company is still rabidly anti-union. Recently, it tried to intimidate Whole Foods employees by claiming, in a training video, that “having a union… could threaten the [store’s] continued existence,” and it doesn’t require inordinate cynicism to see the recent wage hike as a way for Amazon to head off what it’s most afraid of: a union. Uber, too, vehemently opposes workers’ efforts to organize, as it reportedly pioneers methods of psychological manipulation to squeeze work from drivers for less money.

Clean tech startups are usually more socially conscious than Amazon and Uber. It’s sort of their brand. Yet they, too, seem keen to disrupt anything that looks slow or stodgy, including unions.

Unions have always been a key player in energy, transportation, and especially automotive manufacturing, and they’ve been critical. “Among the UAW’s victories: the first paid vacations for autoworkers, cost-of-living pay increases, and medical coverage for employees and retirees,” Elizabeth Lopatto wrote for The Verge last week. In addition to helping their members, unions, like the UAW, also played a big part in the growth of the middle class after WWII, cementing a pact autoworkers had made with Henry Ford decades earlier: we’ll be good workers, so long as you treat us well enough to enjoy the spoils of the booming consumer economy.

Companies like Tesla have an opportunity to renew that pact for a green economy. Yet, it’s not clear they will. This makes the outcome of the NLRB case crucial, as it will send a signal about who wins and who loses in the shift to a low-carbon economy. And the stakes are high: if workers lose, everyone does.

Casey Williams is a freelance writer covering climate, environment, and labor politics. He has written for The New York Times, HuffPost, VICE and more.

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