Tesla workers in New York launch a union campaign

A group of Tesla workers in Buffalo, New York, emailed CEO Elon Musk on Tuesday to announce their intent to unionize. Collectively named Tesla Workers United, the group hopes to form the first ever union at the electric vehicle company.

Many of the employees at Tesla’s Buffalo plant label data as part of the automaker’s Autopilot team, a job that may not be as critical to Tesla’s operations in the future. At least, that was the takeaway from last June, when Tesla shuttered its San Mateo office, laying off 229 Autopilot workers who annotated data to train the automated driving system. The remaining 47 workers were reportedly relocated to Buffalo.

The Buffalo workers are organizing for job security and better pay and working conditions with Workers United, the same group that helped form the country’s first unionized Starbucks, which was also located in Buffalo. That local store’s union drive set off a chain reaction across the U.S. — now, over 250 Starbucks stores in 40 states have voted to unionize since December 2021.

“Unionizing will further accelerate the world’s transition to sustainable energy, because it will give us a voice in our workplace and in the goals we set for ourselves to accomplish,” the organizing committee wrote in a statement. “Having greater sustainability in our own work lives and individual well-being will translate into greater ability to meet those goals, which is why we strongly believe that sustainability starts with us.”

Not only are data labelers seeking security in their livelihoods, but they’re also weighed down by pressure on the job. Per Bloomberg’s report, Tesla tracks employees’ keystrokes to determine how much work they devote to each of their tasks. Six employees said that this surveillance, coupled with the pressure of aggressive metrics and deadlines, has led to some workers skipping bathroom breaks. The roles pay a minimum of about $19 per hour.

As Tesla Workers United announces its union drive, their first goal is to get Tesla to sign a document of fair election principles, which would bar the company from retaliating against organizing workers.

Musk has in the past been derisive toward unions. He faced blowback from the U.S. National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) over a tweet from 2018, implying that employees would lose their stock options if they joined a union with the United Auto Workers. The NLRB also found that Tesla broke labor laws by interfering with employee organizing at its Fremont, California, facility. In particular, these violations occurred when Tesla created rules to prevent off-duty workers from distributing leaflets about union organizing, and fired two employees involved in union efforts.