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Tesla Autopilot workers try to unionize, are “tired of being treated like robots”

A Tesla car connected with a cable to a supercharger.
Enlarge / Tesla Supercharger at a gas station in Katowice, Poland, on October 9, 2021.

Getty Images | NurPhoto

Tesla Autopilot workers in Buffalo, New York, today launched a unionization campaign that, if successful, would create the first union at Elon Musk’s electric carmaker. Bloomberg reported on the union drive after speaking to several Tesla workers at the Buffalo facility:

Workers at the plant told Bloomberg News that Tesla monitors keystrokes to track how long employees spend per task and how much of the day they spend actively working. This leads some to avoid taking bathroom breaks, six employees said.

“People are tired of being treated like robots,” said Al Celli, a member of the union’s organizing committee.

The workers want higher pay, better job security, more involvement in workplace decisions, and limits on “monitoring, metrics and production pressure,” Bloomberg reported.

“We have such a rush to get things done that I don’t know if it’s actually being well-thought-out,” Celli said. “It’s just, ‘let’s get this out as fast as we can.'”

The Buffalo plant has over 800 Tesla Autopilot analysts with starting pay of about $19 per hour, Bloomberg wrote. The workers are reportedly “in non-engineering roles that contribute to Tesla’s automated-driving development, including by identifying objects in images its vehicles capture and helping its systems recognize them on the road.”

“Asking for a seat in the car we helped build”

The Tesla workers are coordinating with Service Employees International Union affiliate Workers United. The union campaign’s website said the workers are asking Tesla to “refrain from threatening or retaliating against workers for organizing, agree to a quick and fair election process, and give the union equal time to hold meetings or post info[rmation].”

“We are paid far less than the national average for our job title and have next to no sick time. We are only asking for a seat in the car that we helped build,” organizer Keenan Lasch said in a statement quoted by CBS News.

According to Bloomberg, workers at Tesla’s Buffalo plant “said they began building an organizing committee in the fall after the company shut down an internal chat channel where employees aired grievances about issues such as the handling of snow days.”

In August 2022, the National Labor Relations Board ruled that Tesla violated US labor law by implicitly banning employees from wearing shirts with union insignias at its Fremont, California, factory. The board ordered Tesla to eliminate the shirt ban and notify workers that it violated US labor law. Tesla started strictly enforcing the policy in 2017 after employees wore union shirts in the Fremont factory.

In September 2019, a federal administrative law judge ruled that Tesla violated federal labor laws by trying to hamper union organizing in Fremont. The judge also ruled that Musk violated labor law when he suggested in a tweet that unionized employees would lose stock options. The NLRB affirmed the judge’s ruling in 2021.

A Buffalo News article noted that a previous union drive involving other workers at the plant hasn’t resulted in an election. “In 2018, the United Steelworkers and International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers unions launched a campaign to organize production and maintenance workers at the facility,” the article said.

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