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Tesla fires dozens after workers announce union campaign, complaint says

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(Bloomberg) –Tesla Inc. terminated dozens of employees Wednesday at its plant in Buffalo, New York, one day after Autopilot workers at the facility announced a union campaign, organizers said in a complaint.

In a filing with the US 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.

In a blog post late Thursday, Tesla denied that it acted in response to the union campaign, and said the terminations were decided earlier in the month as part of a routine performance-review process. The company said it had 675 employees who label data for Tesla’s Autopilot system in Buffalo, and that the 4% it fired had “received prior feedback on their poor performance from their managers.”

Read more: Tesla Autopilot workers launch union campaign in New York

An organizing committee of 25 employees had sent an email to Chief Executive Officer Elon Musk early Tuesday with their intent to unionize.

Arian Berek, one of the organizers, was among those terminated, according to the union’s filing.

“I feel blindsided,” she 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.”

 

The Autopilot analysts are 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.

In its blog post Thursday, Tesla said that it used time monitoring for image labeling “to improve the ease of use of our labeling software,” and that “there is nothing to be gained by delaying bathroom breaks.”

On Wednesday, the day after Bloomberg News quoted several Tesla employees discussing their workplace concerns, the company also 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.

Read more: Tesla illegally told staff to not discuss pay, US labor board alleges

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 US 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.

(Updated with Tesla comments from fifth paragraph)
–With assistance from Dana Hull.

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