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Buffalo Community Shows Support to Fired Tesla Workers Seeking Union

Barista organizers and the local community lend support to Buffalo Tesla workers and their new union drive.

Tesla worker Lizzie McKimmie speaks at the Tesla Workers United press conference in Buffalo, New York on February 18, 2023.

“Hi everyone. We are Tesla Workers United.”

So began the press conference on Saturday, February 18, when a dozen Buffalo Tesla workers stood behind a makeshift podium to introduce their new union to the world.

The workers at the press conference all worked in the Autopilot department at Tesla’s massive Gigafactory 2 in South Buffalo, New York, labeling data for the company’s self-driving program. On February 14, they delivered a letter to management announcing their intention to unionize. At the press conference, they explained their reasons, including a desire for greater job security as well as more transparency and accountability from management.

In the face of recent firings at the factory, which many workers believe to be retaliatory, the organizers were unbowed and determined to advance their union drive, saying support was growing.

If successful, their union would be a first at Tesla.

“Treated as Sustainable as the Products We’re Creating”

In true Buffalo fashion, it all started with a snowstorm.

The city was walloped in November with a mega-blizzard that shut down the factory, but workers didn’t get paid for the missed days unless they took sick days or vacation days. Some voiced broader concerns about company policies around snowstorms over a chat channel at work. Workers wondered why they needed to lose pay over circumstances beyond their control or why the company would risk worker safety by making them come to work during severe weather. There were some signals and whispers about needing a union.

Workers say management soon shut down the channel, so some workers decided to take the discussion to “outside communications.” Soon, a union organizing committee was born.

At the press conference, Tesla workers involved in the union drive described how management wielded arbitrary power in ways that left employees feeling stressed and confused. Problems that workers raise are not adequately addressed, and lines of managerial authority feel almost “purposely confusing,” said Keenan Lasch. One worker said a pay raise they were promised during the hiring process never materialized. Many feel a lack of job security.

“We are unable to hold them accountable in any way, shape or form,” said Will Hance.

Most demeaning is the surveillance and micromanagement workers say they endure.

“We are tracked down to the keystroke of what we do,” said Lasch. Just going to the bathroom risks “not hitting your goal” and a talk with management. “It can lead to firings,” they said.

The workers hope a union can change all this. They want better working conditions that include improved collaboration, more transparency from management and more realistic time expectations around assignments. They also want a contract with a just cause clause to protect their job security. They’re asking Tesla to agree to fair election principles during their union drive.

The union’s current support is concentrated in Autopilot labeling, one of several departments at the factory, which employs around 2,000 workers. “We encourage all departments to get involved,” said Al Celli.

Workers at the press conference emphasized that they support the company’s mission and are proud of what they do, but they want a better Tesla for workers.

“We’d like to see the workers of Tesla be treated as sustainable as the products we’re creating,” said Alex Kowalewski.

“People Don’t Want to Be Treated That Way”

“I love what I do,” said Lizzie McKimmie, a data annotation specialist. “I get excited to see the Tesla Autopilot. I wear Tesla merch all the time.”

McKimmie, a lifelong western New Yorker, spoke to Truthout a few days after the press conference to discuss why she joined the union drive and what a union would mean to her.

She started working at Tesla in April 2021 with high hopes. Before that, she worked eight years as a veterinary technician, but said the job was “very high stress” with low pay and poor benefits. She has a knack for computers, so when the opportunity came to work at Tesla, it seemed like a perfect fit.

McKimmie said she “really loves” being at Tesla, and she especially likes her coworkers. Having a 9-to-5 job with weekends off also means a lot to McKimmie because she’s a single mother with two small children.

But some things about the job began to gnaw away at her.

She hoped to “grow within the company” and was sometimes doing three times the work of others and receiving stellar feedback, she said. But whenever she applied for a promotion, management told her that they were tracking her keystrokes and she wasn’t meeting time. This was frustrating for McKimmie, who says she was “obviously doing the work.” The tracking software makes mistakes, she said, and also doesn’t account for taking time to help coworkers.

The campaign has distributed Tesla Workers United buttons such as these as part of the organizing effort.
The campaign has distributed Tesla Workers United buttons such as these as part of the organizing effort.

She also said workers are chided for being just a few minutes late even when there are snowstorms that hamper driving.

“If we’re presenting good results, being a minute late shouldn’t be that big of a deal,” she said.

What bothered McKimmie even more was that these management practices were chasing coworkers she loved away from Tesla.

“I watched so many really great people who are great at their job leave because of these types of rules that just don’t make sense,” she said. “People don’t want to be treated that way. We’d like to have a little bit more autonomy in what we’re doing.”

Job security is also a major concern for McKimmie. She says management reviews of workers — where they rank performance between 1 and 5 — feel arbitrary.

“The supervisor just picks that number for you,” she said. “It’s not like we took a test and didn’t grade high enough. I want to know that I might not lose my job for some random reason.”

“There’s concern that things are vague on purpose,” McKimmie said.

She added there’s also frustration among workers that management has them take on more responsibilities with no accompanying raise and constantly moves the timeline back on raises that have been promised.

McKimmie said there were “rumblings” about unionization at the factory over the past few months, but she hadn’t been involved.

Then, shortly before Valentine’s Day, there was a knock on her door.

“It’s Really Been a Group Effort”

That knock came from Brian Murray, one of the very first baristas who took part in the Starbucks union drive in Buffalo. Murray told McKimmie about the organizing committee at Tesla and fanned her interest.

She said the Starbucks workers were pivotal in convincing her to join the union drive at Tesla.

“They really sold me on everything that’s happening,” said McKimmie. “It was something that I really wanted to be a part of.”

The Tesla union drive is a prime example of how the organizing models and infrastructure built by the Starbucks campaign and other labor efforts in Buffalo are inspiring and supporting other workers. The past few years of barista organizing in western New York — from SPoT Coffee to Starbucks, Perks Coffee to Remedy House — have created a culture of solidarity in the region and a growing diaspora of skilled organizers who are eager to assist new union drives when called upon.

“A lot of these different campaigns are kind of coalescing,” Murray told Truthout. “We have this group of organizers that are working together from all these different shops to go after whatever the target is.”

Tesla Workers United was organized with Workers United Upstate, the same union that Starbucks Workers United is affiliated with.

Murray said he and others have drawn on their own organizing experience to help Tesla workers map out their workplace, carry out door knockings and produce literature.

“It’s really been a group effort,” he said.

Victoria Conklin is another barista helping the Tesla campaign. She worked at the East Robinson Starbucks in Buffalo before the company fired her in June — purportedly for being late to work for the first time in five years, says Conklin — after she led a walkout.

While she appeals her termination with the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB), Conklin is putting in long days helping Tesla workers, offering emotional support for any fired workers and talking them through how to file charges with NLRB and apply for unemployment. She still feels waves of sadness when she thinks about how much she misses her fellow workers at Starbucks, but this “behind the scenes” support for Tesla workers provides some sustenance.

“It’s daunting to take on a company like Tesla,” she said, “So any way that we can help support them, we’re happy to do so.”

This web of solidarity all came together on Valentine’s Day, when Tesla workers submitted their letter to management with 25 names announcing their intent to unionize. Outside the plant gates, Conklin, Murray, and other supporters passed out valentines with information on the union, while some workers slipped them to coworkers on the inside.

“What better way than to give your coworker information about the organizing committee and the union than with a cute little valentine,” said Conklin.

Tesla Workers United and their supporters distributed copies of this flyer at the Buffalo Tesla plant on Valentine’s Day.
Tesla Workers United and their supporters distributed copies of this flyer at the Buffalo Tesla plant on Valentine’s Day.

McKimmie decided to join the Zoom organizing call the night before and she added her name to the union letter. There was a mix of emotions inside the factory on Valentine’s Day.

“It was scary, but at the same time, there were a lot of people very excited about it, and we have gotten quite a lot of signatures,” she said. “We’re getting more and more all the time.”

“There’s a Whole Community Behind the Workers”

One thing that Tesla Workers United can count on is wide support from the Buffalo community.

“They should know that we have their back,” said Peter De Jesús Jr., president of the Western New York Labor Federation, a federation of 140 unions that represent 165,000 members. “We will be there to answer the call for whatever they need. The entire western New York labor movement is behind them.”

“There’s a whole community behind the workers, and we’ll come out,” India Walton, former Democratic candidate for mayor of Buffalo, told Truthout. “We’ll get on a picket line with you. We’ll help raise resources for your strike fund. Just keep going.”

The Tesla plant is a sore spot for many Buffalonians because of its checkered history of receiving massive subsidies without delivering promised results.

A decade ago, Gov. Andrew Cuomo promised a “Buffalo Billion” in state funds toward a solar panel factory — later bought by Tesla — that would create hundreds of jobs and shape Buffalo into a new industrial green manufacturing hub. But, as a recent Investigative Post report shows, the factory has fallen well short on its promises.

“This ended up just another example of a huge public subsidy going to a billionaire,” said Andrea Ó Súilleabháin, executive director of the Partnership for the Public Good, a community-based think tank in the Buffalo-Niagara region.

Súilleabháin says in subsidizing the factory, the state should have required Tesla to create union jobs.

“I think this whole story just raises the core belief that public dollars should have public benefits,” she said. “Public subsidies, especially to huge corporations, need to reflect our public values.”

In Buffalo, those “public values” are pro-union.

“Buffalo is a union town,” said De Jesús Jr., with a union density that is twice the national average and “a solidarity that has been carefully crafted over decades.”

Tesla workers know they live in a pro-union city and look forward to support from the community. Murray believes this is going to be vital for the union drive.

“This is going to have to be the whole community and local labor movement coming together to put a massive amount of pressure on Tesla and Elon Musk to actually allow a free and fair election,” he said.

“This Is Our Right Protected by Law”

The union says that more than 30 Buffalo Tesla workers were fired shortly after the letter was delivered, including several union supporters. (Tesla Workers United has set up a GoFundMe for the fired workers.) Tesla says they were routine firings decided on before the union announcement, but many see them as retaliatory. The firings are concentrated in the Autopilot department that is the current base of union support, and the company has faced union-busting controversy in the past. The union has filed charges with the NLRB to reinstate the workers.

“This is our right that is protected by law,” Celli said at the February 18 press conference. “We have the right to organize, and people should not be afraid.”

While the firings may have rattled some, the organizing committee and support for the union are growing.

McKimmie said she is now fully immersed trying to build the union. In addition to union leaders’ work organizing in-person meet-ups and getting union cards signed, the effort is also spreading through “word of mouth.”

“We’re really working on trying to get people to build the courage to join us and sign the cards,” McKimmie said.

She urges her coworkers to join the fight. “Don’t be scared,” she said. “If this is something that you think we would benefit from, then you should use your voice.”

McKimmie calls herself a “mama bear” and said what motivates her most is her desire to defend her coworkers. She was close with a few of the fired employees.

They were “excellent workers” who “do not deserve this in any way,” she said. She hopes a union can give more protection to her coworkers.

“It’s a risk I’m willing to take to help them,” she said.

McKimmie is also fighting for her own kids’ future. She has no plans to leave Buffalo, and she wants to further grow the city as a union town where her children can enjoy good pay, benefits, dignity and security at work.

“I want my daughter to know that nothing is impossible,” she says. “She can have a voice and not be afraid.”

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