Skip to content Skip to footer

Tesla Workers in Buffalo Are Unionizing, With Help From Starbucks Unionists

If the workers are successful, they will form the company’s first-ever union.

An aerial view shows cars parked at the Tesla Fremont Factory in Fremont, California, on February 10, 2022.

Tesla workers in Buffalo, New York, are seeking to form the company’s first union, the workers announced on Tuesday, with help from leaders of the Starbucks union effort that has seen prodigious success over the past two years.

“We want Tesla to be the company we know it can be. Our union will further Tesla’s principles and objectives, including by helping to serve as the conscience of the organization and by ensuring and deepening our culture of trust and respect,” the union wrote in a statement urging the company to commit to not interfering with the union effort.

The workers are unionizing with Workers United, an affiliate of Service Employees International Union (SEIU). They sent an email to Musk on Tuesday announcing their intent to unionize, and are planning to hand out Valentine’s Day cards at work on Tuesday that read “Roses are red / violets are blue / forming a union starts with you,” with a link to a website where workers can sign union cards, per Bloomberg.

The workers in the Buffalo “Gigafactory,” who label data for Tesla’s self-driving program, say they face time pressures at work and are monitored by the company, which tracks their productivity through keystrokes. Workers say these pressures lead employees to skip bathroom breaks. “People are tired of being treated like robots,” union organizing committee member Al Celli told Bloomberg.

“We have such a rush to get things done that I don’t know if it’s actually being well thought out,” Celli continued. “It’s just, ‘Let’s get this out as fast as we can.’”

There are over 800 workers analyzing Autopilot data in this position, according to the union, with a starting pay of around $19 per hour, or just under $40,000 a year for a 40 hour work week, which workers say is low for their position. The company fired hundreds of these workers last year.

The workers are seeking better job stability, higher pay and lighter productivity pressures from the company, which is owned by conservative billionaire Elon Musk. They are also seeking to organize roughly 1,000 workers in manufacturing at the Gigafactory, and have received guidance from leaders of the Starbucks union campaign like Jaz Brisack, who labor officials found was illegally fired by Starbucks for her union leadership last year.

“I believe in Tesla, our mission, and the work I do at the company,” Tesla worker Zahra Lahrache said in a statement. “As much as I love my job, it can feel very disheartening living paycheck to paycheck when I work for one of the most successful companies in the world.”

“They promised big incentives, but have delivered on little, too late, and in some cases, not at all,” added Tesla worker Tzivyiah Abosch.

Workers have tried to unionize Tesla before, but have faced fierce resistance from vehement union opponent Elon Musk. In 2017, workers went public with a campaign to unionize the company’s factory in Fremont, California, with United Auto Workers (UAW) — but after the company illegally fired a union activist, as labor officials found, the union effort fizzled out.

Musk has also flagrantly broken labor laws. In 2021, the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) determined that a 2018 tweet from Musk discouraging workers from unionizing was illegal and ordered him to delete it. But the tweet remains up two years after that decision.

Other reports from employees about toxic work environments fostered by Musk have raised alarm with labor advocates. The right-wing billionaire, who now owns Twitter, appears to be willing to fire workers who don’t boost his ego at the drop of a pin; his first move at Twitter was to lay off workers en masse. Regulators recently ordered the company to reclassify its main office in San Francisco if it wants to maintain the beds it is keeping in the building for workers to sleep in so they can meet their work quotas.

Meanwhile, Tesla’s California factory has been sued by the state over allegations of rampant racism at the factory, where workers say they are segregated by race and Black workers face racial slurs throughout the work day.