Along Silicon Valley’s interlocking freeways, low-slung tech offices with obscure names like Way.com or Oorja are populated by fresh-faced technologists in badges and pleated slacks, striving to create the next great app. But off the I-880 in Fremont, a white colossus rises from the landscape, a 5.3-million-square-foot monster that stretches across two interchanges. The gray lettering is a full story high: TESLA.Mr. Lichtenstein may not know it, but his categorization of Musk's rhetoric can be more broadly applied to the tech industry.
Here, the company makes high-end, zero-emission vehicles, luxury cruisers for a climate emergency. Chief executive officer Elon Musk has cultivated a reputation as an economic visionary and has been hailed for solving the world’s great challenges with panache. Tesla’s Fremont factory brought hope to a blue-collar, racially diverse town with a manufacturing tradition. And this week, after reports of a 69 percent increase in first-quarter sales, the automaker passed Ford in market value. But though its products epitomize the future, workers like Richard Ortiz say Tesla’s labor conditions are mired in the past. Ortiz is a production associate in the closures department, assembling hoods, doors—“anything that opens or closes”—on Model S sedans and Model X SUVs. Though videos of the Tesla factory emphasize robotic automation, over 6,000 workers engage in intense manual labor to build the cars.
“I have an eight-pound rivnut gun,” Ortiz said, referring to a tool that installs rivet nuts. “I’m doing that all day long. I’m to the point where, if I pick something up with any weight, within 30 seconds I have to drop it. That scares me; I want to be able to use my arm when I retire.”
Tesla workers say circumstances like Ortiz’s are commonplace at a factory that prioritizes production goals over health and safety. Now they’re fighting back against low pay, hazardous conditions, and a culture of intimidation, seeking to unionize through the United Auto Workers. Tesla is the only U.S. automaker using nonunion workers at a stateside plant, and breaking through would give organized labor a foothold in the tech industry as well. Until then, the Tesla experience reveals that green jobs aren’t necessarily good jobs without worker power. “They want to make sustainable cars,” says Ortiz. “We need sustainable employment.”
But after originally describing Tesla as “union neutral,” Musk said on an earnings call in February that “there are really only disadvantages to someone to want the UAW here.” In a later email to workers, Musk delivered a point-by-point rebuttal to Moran’s Medium post, arguing that overtime had decreased and incident rates were below average. Instead of offering workers better wages and input on production, Musk promised “a really amazing party” for the launch of the Model 3, “free frozen yogurt stands” at the factory, and “a Tesla electric pod roller coaster” connecting the parking lots. “It’s going to get crazy good,” Musk concluded.
Labor historian Nelson Lichtenstein expressed horror at Musk’s rhetoric. “It was the worst kind of caricature of a capitalist, like it’s 1898,” he said. “They have these sophisticated systems of production and distribution, but their social arrangements are utterly retrograde.”
Until the drones at places like Tesla, Facebook, Uber, and Google come to understand that providing free frozen yogurt is not a sign of respect from their employers, but rather an indicator that management thinks that the employees are easily manipulated rubes, this situation will not improve.
The autoworkers are sharper than the Stanford educated programmers when they say about this attidude is that, "It’s insulting, it shows you what he thinks of us."