In a filing with the U.S. National Labor Relations Board, the union Workers United accused Tesla of illegally terminating the employees "in retaliation for union activity and to discourage union activity." The union asked the labor board to seek a federal court injunction "to prevent irreparable destruction of employee rights resulting from Tesla's unlawful conduct."
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.
"This is a form of collective retaliation against the group of workers that started this organizing effort," said Jaz Brisack, a Workers United organizer who is helping spearhead the Tesla union drive. The terminations are "designed to terrify everyone about potential consequences of them organizing, as well as to attempt to cull the herd," she said.
Tesla officials including Chief Executive Officer Elon Musk and the company's human resources chief did not respond to inquiries. Tesla disbanded its press-relations team in 2020.
A 25-employee organizing committee, who label data for Tesla's Autopilot system, sent an email to Musk early Tuesday with their intent to unionize.
Arian Berek, one of the organizers, was among those terminated Wednesday, according to the union's filing. "I feel blindsided," Berek said in a statement provided by the union. "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."
Tesla's Buffalo factory employs more than 800 Autopilot analysts, 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, according to the union.
The company dismissed hundreds of workers performing these jobs in California last year, Bloomberg reported in June.
In addition to job security and increased pay, employees have said they seek a say in workplace decision-making, and want to curb monitoring, metrics and production pressure that they claim are harmful to their health. They say Tesla monitors their keystrokes and tracks how long they spend per task and how much of the day they spend actively working. This leads some to avoid taking bathroom breaks, several employees previously told Bloomberg News.
On Wednesday, the day after Bloomberg News quoted 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," according to a copy viewed by Bloomberg News.
Workers United successfully organized hundreds of Starbucks Corp. stores last year, after securing a landmark win at a Buffalo cafe six miles from the Tesla plant.
The union has said it also aims to organize the roughly 1,000 manufacturing employees at the facility. On Tuesday, Tesla workers circulated leaflets at the plant to both groups of employees, with links to a website where they could sign union cards.
Sara Costantino, an Autopilot worker and member of the organizing committee, said the Wednesday terminations are galvanizing more workers to support the union effort. "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 said.
Federal law prohibits retaliating against workers for taking collective action about workplace conditions, including by organizing unions. Complaints filed with the NLRB are investigated by regional offices. If labor board officials find merit in the allegations and the company doesn't settle, they prosecute the claims before an agency judge, whose ruling can be appealed to board members in Washington, and from there to federal appeals court. The agency has the authority to order fired workers reinstated with backpay, but not to make companies pay punitive damages.
A bipartisan group of U.S. labor board members ruled in 2021 that Tesla repeatedly violated federal law in Fremont, including by "coercively interrogating" union supporters and firing one because of his activism. Tesla has denied wrongdoing and is appealing that ruling.