In another round of Elon Musk’s fight against unionization in his companies, the National Labor Relations Board has ordered Tesla to have Elon Musk delete a tweet that could be seen as threatening toward the company’s employees’ efforts to unionize and take steps to educate employees about their rights.
The tweet, written in 2018 (and not yet deleted at the time of publication), reads: “Nothing stopping Tesla team at our car plant from voting union. Could do so tmrw if they wanted. But why pay union dues & give up stock options for nothing? Our safety record is 2X better than when plant was UAW & everybody already gets healthcare.”
Elon Musk went on to accuse the United Auto Workers (UAW), the largest automaker union in the United States, of dumping its operations in Fremont “like a hot potato” during the 2008 recession, while the plant was still managed by General Motors and Toyota as part of a joint venture. Tesla took over operations at the plant in 2010.
The National Labor Relations Board has also ordered Tesla to rehire a union activist named Richard Ortiz and compensate Ortiz for lost earnings, benefits and adverse tax consequences related to his firing. At the time, Ortiz had been leading a campaign called “Fair Future at Tesla.” During the campaign, Tesla said that it should remain union-free.
Tesla will also be required to amend its confidentiality agreement to bring it more in line with federal labor laws and regulations, which “protects employees when they speak with the media about working conditions, labor disputes, or other terms and conditions of employment,” the NLRB said in its ruling. Tesla’s confidentiality agreement previously barred employees from speaking to the media without clearance from the company.
Tesla and Musk have gotten into their share of legal disputes with disgruntled former employees over the matter of dealings with the media. In September 2020, a Nevada district court ruled in favor of Tesla in a case involving a former employee who leaked sensitive documents to the media. The former employee claimed in his defense that his goal was to reveal unsafe working conditions at Tesla’s factory in Nevada. The court ruled that the employee had violated cybersecurity laws by leaking the information.
Tesla is also currently involved in a legal battle with a Chinese news outlet called PingWest, which allegedly falsely stated that Gigafactory Shanghai makes use of “sweatshop” practices, including demanding bosses and unsafe low-tech conditions in the factory. Although Elon Musk does have a reputation for being highly particular when it comes to employment, including occasionally poaching other business’ “employees of the month,” the lawsuit implies that PingWest’s article on the topic was overly sensationalist.
The National Labor Relations Board also requires that Tesla, and especially Elon Musk, take steps to inform employees of their rights. Musk will especially be required to hold meetings in which employee rights will be read aloud, either by Musk or by a board agent in Musk’s presence.
The United Auto Workers originally brought the case before the National Labor Relations Board in 2018. A UAW Vice President and Director, Cindy Estrada, said in a statement issued by the union, “While we celebrate the justice in today’s ruling, it nevertheless highlights the substantial flaws in US labor law. Here is a company that clearly broke the law and yet it is three years down the road before these workers achieved a modicum of justice.”
Tesla, which notoriously lacks a PR department and regards Elon Musk’s tweets as official company communications, has not yet issued a statement on the ruling. At the time the UAW’s complaint was filed, Tesla had this to say:
“Faced with declining membership, an overwhelming loss at a Nissan plant earlier this month, corruption charges that were recently leveled against union leaders who misused UAW funds, and failure to gain traction with our employees, it’s no surprise the union is feeling pressured to continue its publicity campaign against Tesla.”