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Tesla, the Worker, the Union, and the Bill That Can’t Help Elon Musk

Elon Musk + Tesla Model S Circa 2011

Tesla Motors CEO Elon Musk knows a unionized workforce would add another variable to his lofty, carefully crafted production plans, and an unpredictable one at that: labor strife.

Until now, the electric automaker’s top boss has fended off the possibility in a progressive-sounding way, but a simmering unionization movement, which reared its head this week, shows no signs of abating. Since the appearance of a scathing blog post written by a Tesla assembly plant worker, Musk has found himself on the defensive. A paid union agitator, Musk claimed, wrote the post to rile employees. Then the UAW jumped into the fray.

Now, it’s one big battle. Musk likely wishes a recently introduced bill to amend the National Labor Relations Act was on his side.

Yesterday, the worker who penned the blog post was identified as 43-year-old Jose Moran, a production associate at Tesla’s Fremont, California assembly plant. Moran has worked for Tesla since 2012. His concerns, not surprisingly, fall along the lines of pay, working hours and safety.

While Musk called the post “morally outrageous” and accused Moran of being a paid agitator, the UAW quickly countered the claim. Moran was not being paid by the UAW, the autoworkers union stated, but added, “We can confirm that Mr. Moran and others at Tesla have approached the UAW, and we welcome them with open arms.”

Moran has created a Facebook page for his organizing committee, titled A Fair Future at Tesla, where he explains his motivations. By all accounts, Moran’s voice is being welcomed by at least some measure of Tesla employees. However, dissenters remain, among them Musk, who told Gizmodo the UAW was behind the failure of Fremont’s first tenant — the New United Motor Manufacturing Incorporated venture.

“The UAW killed [Toyota-GM joint venture NUMMI] and abandoned the workers at our Fremont plant in 2010,” Musk said. “They have no leg to stand on.â€�

Hey, not so fast, said Maryann Keller, principal at auto industry consultancy Maryann Keller Associates and author of a book on the NUMMI saga. In a LinkedIn post, Keller refutes Musk’s claim that UAW involvement sank the joint venture:

The workforce at NUMMI– even organized by the UAW – was not the problem. Over time, GM took less and less of NUMMI production and by the 2000’s had effectively withdrawn from NUMMI. By then, Toyota assembly and supplier capacity was concentrated nearly two thousand miles away in lower cost locales. NUMMI became an isolated outpost that had lost its relevance to the two partners.

In the background of the newfound unionization push at Tesla, a bill introduced in Congress by Steve King (R-IA) holds relevance to the situation — at least, Musk’s grasp of the situation.

The Truth in Employment Act 2017, introduced on January 30th, seeks to amend the National Labor Relations Act to protect the employer from employees who join a company with the sole intention of organizing that company’s workforce. (H/T to former TTAC EIC Ed Niedermeyer for uncovering the proposed legislation.)

The bill preserves the rights of workers to organize, but seeks to “alleviate pressure on employers to hire individuals who seek or gain employment in order to disrupt the workplace of the employer or otherwise inflict economic harm designed to put the employer out of business.”

As written, the bill would amend the labor act to include the following: “Nothing in this subsection shall be construed as requiring an employer to employ any person who seeks or has sought employment with the employer in furtherance of other employment or agency status.�

Had Moran joined Tesla with the intention of organizing the workforce, the bill — if passed — would give Musk a legislative leg to stand on. However, Moran’s four-and-a-half years on the production floor tells a different story.

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