Jose Moran, the Tesla employee who’s leading the effort to form a union at the company’s 6,200-person factory in Fremont, California, said he’s “disappointed” in Tesla CEO Elon Musk’s reaction to his concerns about working conditions and desire to join a union.
In an interview with Gizmodo, Musk called “the attack” on Tesla working conditions “morally outrageous” and accused Moran of being a operative hired by United Automobile Workers to agitate for a union. Moran categorically denied that he is on the union payroll, saying of Musk, “It goes to show what kind of respect he has for workers’ opinions.”
On the call, Moran, who says he’s worked in Tesla’s facility for over four years, said it’s not uncommon for him and his fellow workers on Tesla's production line — 200 of whom he said are members of a Facebook group where they discuss work-related issues — to work 10- to 12-hour days. Moran said he first reached out to the UAW in 2013, not long after workers were asked to work 12-hour shifts three days in a row. In Musk's comments to Gizmodo, he said Tesla is in the process of phasing out the practice known there as “mandatory overtime.” Moran, who was a union member in the past when he worked for NUMMI, the auto manufacturer that previously operated in the current Tesla facility, said the practice has decreased somewhat since he started working at Tesla.
In addition to long hours, Moran’s grievances with Tesla include what he describes as comparatively low pay and unsafe working conditions, specifically repeated stress that can lead to ergonomic injuries. According to his LinkedIn profile, Moran is an UnderBody team lead in the Body Center at Tesla's factory. In his Medium post, Moran said six of his eight co-workers were recently out of work on medical leave due to injuries that resulted from working long hours on “machinery ... often not ergonomically compatible with our bodies.”
Tesla did not immediately respond to request for comment on this story. In his comments to Gizmodo, Musk described his position as “union neutral,” adding that Tesla is “the last car company left in California, because costs are so high.”
Tesla’s has a rocky track record with California’s Department of Occupational Safety and Health. A 2014 electrical explosion at the Fremont facility led to serious injuries for one employee and hefty fines for Tesla. In 2013, three employees were burned by molten aluminum, which CalOSHA found to be the result of training and safety failures. (Musk later visited them at the hospital.) More recently, a Fremont Tesla employee was struck by a forklift in 2015. There were three health and safety inspections at Tesla’s Fremont facility in 2016, two of which are ongoing.
Moran didn’t comment on any past or current OSHA inspections during Friday’s call, but he did say that he felt union representation would make working at Tesla’s factory safer. “I think the union is good because we can work to prevent … injuries,” he said, “and have a more involved safety and health representative.”
In an interview with MarketWatch earlier this week, Fremont’s Mayor Lily Mei praised the economic impact the company has had on the city. But not all local elected officials are as enthusiastic. Earlier this year, five lawmakers sent a letter to Tesla, expressing concerns that employees had been denied the right to speak openly about working conditions in the factory.
“While I greatly respect and admire Tesla’s achievements in creating eco-friendly automobiles and green jobs right here in California, I want to ensure worker rights are protected and that they are provided a safe working environment,” wrote Assemblymember Kansen Chu, one of the letter’s signatories, in an email to BuzzFeed News.
This isn’t the first time Tesla has had trouble with unions. A year ago, union construction workers walked off the job at Tesla’s “gigafactory” in Nevada over hiring practices.
Meanwhile, in Fremont, a representative for the Building & Construction Trades Council of Alameda County told BuzzFeed News that his organization, which previously placed contracted union workers at NUMMI, hadn’t succeeded in winning the same deal with Tesla. Earlier this week, the Building & Construction Trades Council of Alameda County wrote an open letter asking Tesla to consider “using skilled Alameda County Building Trades workers on your Fremont plant expansion.”
“The quality of our skilled workers and local residents meets the high standards of Tesla,” the letter reads. “Working together, we can build on the Labor-Tech partnerships other tech leaders such as Apple, Facebook and Google have successfully implemented as the model of innovation moving forward.”
Multiple Tesla employees reached for comment on the union issue by BuzzFeed News declined to discuss the issue. On the conference call, Moran said, to his knowledge, no employees have been fired or otherwise retaliated against for discussing unionization, but he did say that fear of intimidation made him concerned about speaking out. He said his co-workers’ response to the letter was overwhelmingly positive. “I had quite a few people come up to me and congratulate me for speaking up,” he said.
Moran also said management approached him for a one-on-one meeting to discuss safety concerns on Friday; he described the tenor of that meeting as “casual.”