In 2017, multiple African-American former Tesla employees filed lawsuits claiming prevalent racism in the workplace, including frequent use of the “N-word” and racist graffiti in bathroom stalls. In March 2021, employees and former employees filed 103 declarations as part of the lawsuit.
“I was directly called n—– and n—- approximately 100 times at the Fremont [California] factory,” Aaron Craven said in his sworn statement.
A former contractor named Aaron Minor says he frequently heard employees refer to African-American co-workers as “cotton pickers.” Another former employee, DeWitt Lambert, says that co-workers frequently called him the N-word and made sexually explicit comments.
In 2019, employees at the Buffalo, New York, factory filed complaints with the US Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) and the New York Division of Human Rights, alleging similar harassment of minorities.
The 2017 case, officially referred to as Marcus Vaughn v. Tesla, has been filed in Alameda County Superior Court. Marcus Vaughn is a former contractor for Tesla. The California Civil Rights Law Group is providing legal representation for the class-action case. The group has previously lost one similar case and won another in arbitration. A third, Owen Diaz v. Tesla, will go to trial later this year.
The attorneys involved in this and similar cases say that it would be really easy to blame Trump for the upswing in cases related to racism in the workplace. They say that they’ve noticed a sharp uptick in cases since Trump’s election in 2016 and believe that Trump may have emboldened racists.
However, Organ says, it’s not like Trump invented racism or directly injected it into Tesla’s workplace culture: “We have evidence from the Diaz case, dating back to 2015, that there was racist conduct on the Tesla factory floor.”
Despite past legal actions brought by former employees, Tesla and the State of California apparently don’t make it easy to sue former employers. In California, employees must first obtain the “right to sue” from the California Department of Fair Employment and Housing. Out of approximately 120 requests by former Tesla employees, the California Department of Fair Employment and Housing has turned down nine of them, saying that there wasn’t enough evidence to warrant a lawsuit.
In its employees’ contracts, Tesla also throws up roadblocks in the way of being tied up in court all the time, not that arbitration agreements always works. A former employee recently filed a lawsuit claiming that the company retaliated against him for reporting theft of copper wire at Tesla’s factory in Nevada. In another case in which a disgruntled former employee named Martin Tripp was found liable for violating Nevada’s cybersecurity laws by leaking sensitive documents to the press, he had filed a countersuit claiming that Tesla defamed him and tapped his phone lines in an effort to build a case against him.
“Many of these issues are subject to arbitration because Tesla requires people who sign their contracts as regular Tesla employees to sign an arbitration agreement as part of that contract,” says California Civil Rights Law Group attorney Larry Organ. However, “It also appears there are some people who have not signed arbitration agreements but do work as regular employees at Tesla because they can’t find the arbitration agreements.”
The discrepancy could be explained by changes in company policy since the California Civil Rights Law Group started taking cases on behalf of former Tesla employees, according to Organ: “Tesla started sending NDAs with arbitration agreements to their contractors, to people who were working at Tesla through staffing agencies. They want to try and push everybody out to arbitration.”
Organ mentioned that Tesla does not seem to pay much attention to the conduct of its employees outside of actually making cars. Discovery in the cases alleging racist behavior turned up frequent use of the N-word and use of symbols like the Nazi swastika.
Tesla denies the allegations of tolerating this behavior among their employees, saying in a press release soon after the filing of the 2017 lawsuit, “After a thorough investigation, immediate action was taken, which included terminating the employment of three of the individuals.”