UAW begins reaching out to Tesla workers, official says
UAW officials have had contact with employees at Tesla Motors’ Fremont, Calif., assembly plant, a top union official said in the latest acknowledgment that the union is interested in organizing the automaker’s workers.
In an interview with Automotive News, UAW Secretary-Treasurer Gary Casteel said a regional director and staff have been communicating with workers at Tesla’s 5.3 million-square-foot plant, building on previous comments from union President Dennis Williams.
“They’re supporting the workers and talking to the workers that are interested and seeing how that interest grows,” he said.
The UAW has previously expressed interest in organizing at the Tesla plant, but it has not announced any plans to do so. Casteel’s comments follow those Williams made in May, when he said the union is “very interested” in organizing at the automaker.
Casteel, who is not directly involved with the UAW’s Tesla relations but has spearheaded the union’s organizing push at Volkswagen’s plant in Chattanooga, said the union typically reaches out to workers to gauge interest ahead of a potential organizing push.
“Every one of these organizing opportunities, I guess, people look at them from the outside like a game or something that the UAW engages into,” Casteel said. “But what has to happen, in every one of these cases, is that the workers have to want to organize. It’s not the institution that goes and starts these things and drives them across the finish line. It’s the workers.”
Tesla CEO Elon Musk has said the plant, which employs about 6,000 workers, will dramatically ramp up production to 500,000 vehicles per year beginning in 2018, making it a larger target for a potential organizing push.
The Tesla plant is the only one in the U.S. owned by an American automaker that is not unionized. The plant was home to New United Motor Manufacturing Inc., a joint venture between General Motors and Toyota, from 1984 through 2010. Workers at the NUMMI plant were represented by the UAW, though it is not clear how many of those workers are currently employed by Tesla.
Typically, the UAW will assign staff to a plant when it becomes clear there is significant support for unionization, said Kristin Dziczek, director of the industry, labor and economics group at the Center for Automotive Research in Ann Arbor, Mich. There is no indication that the union has assigned organizing staff for Tesla.
Several requests for comment from UAW International in Detroit and its Region 5 office in Hazelwood, Mo. -- which covers California and other western states -- went unreturned.
“Tesla is focused on ensuring that its employees are always treated fairly,” a Tesla spokesperson said in an email. “We are not expressing an opinion beyond that.”
Putting out feelers
Dziczek said she is “not surprised” that the union would have contacts at Tesla, saying it is common for the UAW to “have feelers out” at most of the locations it hopes to eventually organize.
Casteel’s comments follow a report last month by The Mercury News in San Jose, Calif., alleging that a Slovenian worker hired by a Tesla subcontractor to construct a paint shop in Fremont was paid just $5 per hour, shining a spotlight on potential labor issues at the factory and elsewhere.
The worker, Gregor Lesnik, was injured on the job after falling three stories from a roof. Tesla initially responded to the report by saying that the claims were “totally unacceptable” if true while denying it knew of any underpayment. Musk later pushed back on Twitter, posting a letter from Eisenmann, one of its contractors, saying ISM Vuzem, the subcontractor in question, was paid $55 an hour per employee by Tesla.
It “is false of Merc News to say that Tesla took advantage of low cost labor,” Musk tweeted. “We paid $55/hr. That is unequivocal.”
The UAW has had its eyes on Tesla for years, but it had held off on an organizing push because the automaker is a startup company, Williams told reporters in May.
“We just believe workers ought to have a voice in the workplace, and they ought to have collective bargaining rights,” Williams said.
Williams said he's met with Musk in the past, though he declined to say whether they discussed potential unionization.
Separately, Casteel criticized Volkswagen AG for not bargaining with skilled-trades workers in Tennessee who voted for UAW representation, and for fighting a related unfair labor practices charge brought against it by the National Labor Relations Board.
The NLRB has said VW must “bargain in good faith" with the 160 skilled-trades workers who voted in December to be represented by the UAW at the Chattanooga plant. The plant employs about 1,500 people.
VW has been fighting the NLRB on its labor ruling, saying it will ultimately take its case to appeals court. The automaker has said it wants the plant’s hourly workers to decide on whether to collectively bargain before moving forward. The plant’s workers narrowly voted against UAW representation in February 2014.
Casteel called VW's fight against the NLRB ruling a “dead-end street” and described a May 11 meeting with the automaker as “cordial” but “not very productive.” He said VW is leaving its workers in a “precarious situation” and blasted the automaker for what he said is a failure to communicate with them.
Last year's vote by skilled-trades workers was a rare victory for the union in the South, where no plants owned by foreign automakers are represented by the UAW.
While acknowledging that organization in Chattanooga could drum up more interest in the region, Casteel downplayed any sort of larger effect a victory at the plant could have.
"It can’t hurt you, but I don’t think it’s going to create some kind of domino effect,” he said.
Instead, Casteel said organized labor can make headway by engaging workers and working to elect state officials who are friendlier to unions.
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