Tesla, Toyota in UAW’s sights for organizing after Big 3 wins

Tesla, Toyota in UAW’s sights for organizing after Big 3 wins

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United Auto Workers President Shawn Fain gestures in solidarity with striking workers during a rally at UAW Local 551 on Saturday, Oct. 7, 2023, in Chicago. 

John J. Kim | Tribune News Service | Getty Images

DETROIT – United Auto Workers President Shawn Fain wants to expand the union’s battle from the Detroit automakers to Tesla, Toyota Motor and other non-unionized automakers operating in the U.S.

The outspoken leader plans to use record contracts recently won after contentious negotiations and U.S. labor strikes with General Motors, Ford Motor and Chrysler-parent Stellantis to assist in the union’s embattled organizing efforts elsewhere.

“We’ve created the threat of a good example, and now we’re going to build on it,” Fain said Thursday night when discussing Stellantis’ tentative agreement. “We just went on strike like we’ve never been on strike before and won a historic contract as a result. Now we’re going to organize like we’ve never organized before.”

Doing so would greatly assist the union’s bargaining efforts and membership, which has been nearly halved from roughly 700,000 members in 2001 to 383,000 at the beginning of this year. UAW membership peaked at 1.5 million in 1979.

The UAW has previously failed to organize foreign-based automakers in the U.S. Most recently, plants with Volkswagen and Nissan Motor fell short of the support needed to unionize. The UAW has previously discussed organizing Tesla’s Fremont plant in California with little to no traction in those efforts.

It remains to be seen whether the recent efforts are gaining traction at any other automakers, but Fain has vowed to move beyond the “Big Three” — Ford, GM and Stellantis — and expand to the “Big Five or Big Six” by the time its 4½-year contracts with the Detroit automakers expire in April 2028.

The deals include 25% wage increases that would boost top pay to more than $40 an hour, reinstatement of cost-of-living adjustments, enhanced profit-sharing payments and other significant pay, healthcare and workplace benefits. The contracts must still be ratified.

The union has already received significant interest from non-union automakers in light of the tentative agreements, Fain said. And last month, he rejected comments from Ford Chair Bill Ford arguing the company and union should be working together to battle non-American automakers.

“Workers at Tesla, Toyota, Honda, and others are not the enemy — they’re the UAW members of the future,” Fain said.

Toyota

UAW President Shawn Fain marches with UAW members through downtown Detroit after a rally in support of United Auto Workers members as they strike the Big Three auto makers on September 15, 2023 in Detroit, Michigan.

Bill Pugliano | Getty Images

“Toyota isn’t giving out raises out of the goodness of their heart,” Fain said. “They could have just as easily raised wages a month ago or a year ago. They did it now because the company knows we’re coming for ’em.”

Toyota, which has 49,000 hourly and salaried U.S. workers, said the “decision to unionize is ultimately made by our team members.”

“By engaging in honest, two-way communication about what’s happening in the company, we aim to foster positive morale which ultimately leads to increased productivity,” the company said Friday in an emailed statement. “Working together has provided a history of stable employment and income for our team members.”

Tesla

The UAW has so far not been able to establish enough support to force an organizing vote at Tesla’s facilities, including its Fremont, California, plant where the union previously represented workers when it was a GM-Toyota joint venture.

Fain on Thursday told Bloomberg News he believes organizing Tesla and taking on CEO Elon Musk is “doable.”

“We can beat anybody,” Fain told Bloomberg. “It’s gonna come down to the people that work for him deciding if they want their fair share… or if they want him to fly himself to outer space at their expense.”

Still, Musk has historically clashed with union proponents.

As some workers sought to form a union at the company’s Fremont factory in in 2017 and 2018, Tesla was paying a consultancy named MWW PR to monitor employees in a Facebook group and on social media more broadly, as CNBC previously reported.

Elon Musk, CEO of Tesla and owner of X, arrives for the Inaugural AI Insight Forum in Russell Building on Capitol Hill, on Wednesday, September 13, 2023.

Tom Williams | Cq-roll Call, Inc. | Getty Images

Tesla also terminated the employment of a union activist named Richard Ortiz in 2017. And in 2018, Musk said in a tweet, “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?”

The tweet violated federal labor laws, the National Labor Relations Board later found.

An administrative court ordered Tesla to reinstate Ortiz and to have Musk delete his tweet, which it concluded had threatened workers’ compensation. Tesla appealed the ruling, and Musk’s offending post remains on the social media platform which Musk now owns, has rebranded as X and runs as CTO and executive chairman.

In February, a different group of organizers filed a complaint with the NLRB claiming that Tesla had fired more than 30 employees at its Buffalo facility in retaliation for a union push there by Tesla Workers United. Tesla called the workers’ allegations false, saying 4% of its Autopilot data labeling team in Buffalo had been terminated due to performance issues.

The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, the federal agency responsible for enforcing civil rights laws against workplace discrimination, sued Tesla in September, alleging widespread racist harassment of Black workers, and retaliation against those who spoke out.

And in late October, just over 100 of Tesla’s service employees in Sweden, members of the industrial labor group IF Metall, walked off the job for a short strike. Hundreds of mechanics and technicians at non-Tesla shops also agreed not to repair any of the EV makers’ cars in solidarity. However, Tesla has so far refused to negotiate with IF Metall.

Tesla did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

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