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Tesla Fired Over 30 Workers in Buffalo the Day After Union Announced Campaign

The union has filed a complaint saying that the firings were retaliation for unionizing.

Elon Musk, Tesla CEO, stands on the construction site of a Tesla factory in Brandenburg, Germany, on May 17, 2021.

Dozens of Tesla workers in Buffalo, New York, were fired the day after workers announced their unionization campaign, a move that the union says amounts to illegal union busting.

According to Tesla Workers United, over 30 workers at the Buffalo “Gigafactory” were fired on Wednesday after workers went public with their union effort the day before, sending a letter to right-wing billionaire CEO Elon Musk asking him not to interfere with the union effort. At least one of the workers who was fired is a member of the union’s organizing committee.

Workers United, under which workers are unionizing, has filed a complaint over the firings, per Bloomberg. The union says that workers were fired “in retaliation for union activity and to discourage union activity,” and is seeking a federal injunction to stop the firings. It is illegal for companies to fire workers in retaliation for pro-union views or activities.

“These firings are unacceptable. The expectations required of us are unfair, unattainable, ambiguous and ever changing,” the union wrote in a statement. “For our CEO, Elon Musk, to fire 30 workers and announce his $2 billion charity donation on the same day is despicable. We stand as one.” (Musk announced on Wednesday that he donated $2 billion in Tesla shares to an undisclosed charity last year. When he made a similar donation in 2021, it went to his own foundation.)

Organizing committee member Arian Berek, who was fired, said that the decision left them dumbstruck. “I got COVID and was out of the office, then I had to take a bereavement leave. I returned to work, was told I was exceeding expectations and then Wednesday came along,” Berek said in a statement.

“I strongly feel this is in retaliation to the committee announcement and it’s shameful,” Berek continued.

Unionizing workers have pledged to continue organizing, but say that the atmosphere in the office is extremely fraught as workers brace for more potential firings.

“Everybody in the office is nervous,” Alexandra Kowalewski, a data analyst at the factory, told Vice. “It’s an edgy atmosphere, and not a good kind. It’s nervewracking.”

According to Kowalewski, management claimed that the firings were based on performance, even though workers’ performance reviews weren’t due until March. “It is very suspicious that it was ahead of schedule,” Kowalewski said. “Frankly, things are never ahead of schedule at Tesla.”

If workers’ union effort is successful, they will form the first union at Tesla. The workers are attempting to unionize employees who analyze data for Tesla’s self-driving technology as well as manufacturing workers at the plant, roughly 1,800 workers in total.

Tesla and Musk are notorious for being anti-union. Both Tesla and Musk have repeatedly been found guilty of violating workers’ rights; Musk in particular seems to be vehemently anti-worker, as recent reports on his ownership of Twitter have shown the brashness with which he treats his workers, especially when they fail to sufficiently inflate his ego. Musk, who is seemingly obsessed with taking any measure possible to cut costs and boost his enormous fortune, likely views a union as a threat to his ability to act with relative impunity.

Firing workers in response to union organizing is an especially disruptive anti-union tactic — and one that union-busting companies use often. In Starbucks workers’ union drive, the company has fired over 200 union leaders, according to the union. The practice has become so common for Starbucks that labor officials have sought a federal injunction against the company to stop it from firing union supporters, saying that widespread terminations are having a major “chilling effect” on the union campaign.

The National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) has been trying to crack down on this practice. For years, when companies were found to have illegally fired a worker, they were only responsible for the worker’s back pay — essentially just the cost of business. But the NLRB ruled in December that employers now have to pay for debts incurred by an employee due to the firing, like late rent payments, medical expenses or credit card debt.

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