Home » ‘People Are Tired Of Being Treated Like Robots’: Tesla Workers Seek Union Drive

‘People Are Tired Of Being Treated Like Robots’: Tesla Workers Seek Union Drive

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Good Tuesday morning and welcome back to The Autopian’s morning roundup of news. On today’s docket: some of Tesla’s workers are seeking to unionize, the world says farewell to an influential Toyota patriarch, and Ford has big tax breaks to thank for that new Michigan battery plant, and America is still a truck country. Let’s dive in, shall we?

Tesla Workers Seek Unionization

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Photo credit: Courtesy of Tesla, Inc.

Tesla is unique among large U.S.-based automakers in that it isn’t, and has never been, a union shop. (Granted, several major Asian and European automakers are non-union in the U.S. too and they have a huge manufacturing presence here, but I’m counting Tesla among the homegrown American crowd.) Over the years, multiple attempts to unionize at Tesla have never really gone anywhere, and CEO Elon Musk has fought hard against them anyway, as Silicon Valley tech lords are wont to do.

Now, a group of Tesla tech workers in upstate New York say they’re seeking a union drive, per a story broken by Bloomberg (subscription required) this morning:

The employees, who label data for Tesla’s Autopilot technology at the company’s plant in Buffalo, New York, sent an email to Musk early Tuesday with their intent to unionize. Employees say they’re seeking better pay and job security alongside a reduction in production pressures that they say have been harmful to their health.

Workers at the plant told Bloomberg News that Tesla monitors keystrokes to track how long employees spend per task and how much of the day they spend actively working. This leads some to avoid taking bathroom breaks, six employees said.

“People are tired of being treated like robots,” said Al Celli, a member of the union’s organizing committee.

If successful, the union would be a first for Tesla, which unlike other leading automakers has successfully resisted unionization at its US factories. This campaign also represents a new test for the embattled U.S. labor movement, which has recently notched a series of victories at longtime non-union firms, including Amazon.com Inc., Apple Inc. and Starbucks Corp.

As that story notes, the Buffalo plant has more than 800 Autopilot analysts who help “train” the semi-autonomous driving system for around $19 per hour. They’re unionizing with the Service Employees International Union affiliate Workers United, not the United Auto Workers, interestingly enough. One assumes that if Tesla’s manufacturing line workers ever sought to unionize, they would do it with the UAW, which represents Ford, General Motors and Stellantis’ workers in the U.S.

It’s also worth noting that Tesla, and some of Musk’s other companies, have been hit with labor claims, fines and lawsuits over working conditions and employment practices for years. And the well-documented treatment of employees at his shiny new toy Twitter is apparently a pretty good indication of working conditions at his shops. Even if this union push has traction, it will certainly face an uphill battle from Musk and co.

Shoichiro Toyoda Passes Away At 97

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Right now is a time of considerable change at Toyota, as the CEO and company scion who served in the top role for more than a decade steps away to let a new generation get ready for a big shift toward EVs. At the same time, it loses another figure who was crucial to its growth story.

Shoichiro Toyoda, son of the company’s founder and father of current CEO Akio Toyoda, died on Tuesday. He was 97. Automotive News has the obituary worth reading today:

Toyoda piloted his family’s namesake company through the trade tensions of the 1980s. He also represented the Toyoda clan on the board for 57 years, making him the automaker’s longest serving director. He was also the father of current Toyoda CEO Akio Toyoda.

His tenure as president of the automaker, from 1981 to 1992, was notable for Toyota’s plunge into North American manufacturing and the rollout of the Lexus luxury brand.

The Japanese carmaker’s move to start building vehicles in the U.S. was partly aimed at defusing trade friction. But it laid the groundwork for a more balanced cost structure, improved efficiencies and vehicles that were better tailored to local demand.

The 1980s through the early ’90s were the time that Toyota arguably became what it is today: a global powerhouse with a substantial manufacturing base in America, and one that grew a world-challenging luxury brand basically from scratch.
Toyota’s rise in that era coincided with the might of Japan’s Bubble Economy, and the elder Toyoda was at the helm for all of it. As that story notes: “When Toyoda took the helm in July 1981, all Toyotas sold in North America were imported. By the time he left that office in 1992, 40 percent of them were made locally.”
The man was a powerhouse who was never afraid to get his hands dirty at the factory or at a new car launch or to let his managers have it when they were dropping the ball. He may have also personally defused a trade war between Japan and the U.S. in the mid-’90s. Rest in peace.

Ford’s New Battery Plant Is Brought To You By The Letters I-R-A

2021 Ford Mustang Mach E
Photo credit: Ford

We told you that America is about to subsidize the hell out of its EV and battery industry with the terms and conditions (read: massive tax breaks) under the Biden Administration’s Inflation Reduction Act. The first big proof of that may have come yesterday with Ford’s huge Michigan battery plant announcement.

Now, the project is sure to draw some criticism because it’s Ford teaming up with Chinese battery giant CATL. But Ford’s executives say they’re fully in control here, and the plant’s construction coincides with the IRA’s goal of localizing the battery supply chain here. Once more from Automotive News:

“It’s a very global marketplace, especially when it comes to batteries,” said Lisa Drake, Ford’s vice president of EV industrialization. “LFP technology is already here … but unfortunately it’s always imported. This project is aimed at derisking that by actually building out the capacity and capability to scale out this technology in the U.S., where Ford has control over the manufacturing, production and work force.”

Drake said the company also considered sites in Canada and Mexico but picked the U.S. after the Biden administration signed the Inflation Reduction Act, which includes tax credits for localizing battery production.

“The IRA was incredibly important for us,” Drake said. “And frankly, it did what it’s intended to do.”

Now, will this plant become a political issue in the 2024 election? It’s possible; Virginia Gov. Glenn Youngkin has been floated as a possible Republican presidential contender, and he had his state pass on the Ford battery plant out of fears of Chinese infiltration, or something. That, plus the fact that it’s a Biden-driven tax deal, could put IRA-related projects under the microscope next year.
Or we’ll all stay focused on more substantial issues that face everyday people, like what stuff was on Hunter’s laptop and whether or not the New World Order will let us keep our gas stoves.

America Is Truly A Truck Country Now

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To the great surprise of no one, America remained solidly a truck country in 2022, even more so than in years past and with a broadening profile of buyers like women and younger people. Here’s Car and Driver on the truck takeover:

Three of the five biggest-selling vehicles in the U.S. last year were trucks: Ford F-series, Chevy Silverado, and Ram pickup. Ford never tires of telling the world that the F-150 has been the best-selling truck in America for the past million years.

And a glance at the sales figures reveals just how many more trucks Ford sells than other models. In 2022, for example, Ford sold 653,957 F-series trucks, according to data from the Automotive News data center. Ford’s second-biggest-selling model last year was the Explorer, which sold 207,673 units.

Chevy sold 513,354 Silverados in 2022, and the rankings follow a similar trend as at Ford. The Equinox SUV came in second place at Chevy, with 212,072 sales last year. Ram, which otherwise only sells the ProMaster and cargo vans, sold 468,344 pickups, the bulk of its 529,280 overall sales for the year.

No wonder the truck market is considered the next great frontier for EVs, and why Ram put its energy there for its Super Bowl ads this year. People keep buying trucks and so automakers will keep selling trucks, especially as the latter group depends on the profit margins there so they can invest in EV development in the first place. It’s ironic that this is how OEMs will finance the “green” vehicle revolution supposedly underway, but hey, here we are.

Your Turn

What do you think of the prospect of a unionized Tesla, even if it’s only this one group? How will Musk act in response to this?

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46 Responses

  1. Unions really depend on national and local leadership and it is likely that most unions do not do enough training for their leadership. In the Northeast SEIU had been doing a really good job, but seems to have slowed their momentum in the last five or ten years – probably due to less ambitious leadership.

    I have managed projects in Union and Non-Union factories, and those with a good union were an absolute pleasure to work with – just give them a punch list and they get it done (to their standards – maybe not what you expected… ????), whereas at one memorable non-union factory nothing would get done – “you didn’t say how many inches off the floor you wanted the outlet….” I think because they were afraid they would get fired for doing something wrong – which the union guys were not worried about.

  2. I’m pro-union anyway, but I especially think that conditions like that warrant employees coming together to demand improvements. It’s frustrating that automation is supposed to make life better, but it is used to make life worse for people in jobs that are already miserable. This isn’t just one company, of course. Amazon famously monitors warehouse staff and delivery drivers, demanding similarly grueling work. Call centers keep statistics on numbers of calls, time at desk, and so much more. Even children are being excessively monitored when doing remote schoolwork.

    It wasn’t that long ago that people predicted further automation would mean a short workweek for a good standard of living. Instead, we have automation used to keep workers in check while they work longer hours for less money.

    1. I was thinking about the idea that automation would lead to shorter work weeks and better lives for all and why that never happened. These are just my random ideas with no facts backing them up.
      1. The service industry has grown a LOT. People eat out more than in the past. Service work is by nature longer hours
      2. Gains in manufacturing efficiency have been offset by increased consumption. We all want to have more shit than folks did in the past.

      1. The shift to more service industry certainly has had an effect, but I would say that a stagnant minimum wage and the need for constant growth has been a bigger driver. If you can spend less on labor than maintaining automation, while also wielding the threat of automation to keep wages low, you can keep making more money (up to a certain point). Even service jobs are being threatened by automation (the automated McDonalds, self-checkouts, etc) rather than seeing the benefits of less labor per person.

        Also critical in this is very low corporate tax rates. The higher percentage a business keeps after their expenses, the less motivation they have to spend more on improving the lives of their workers. It seems counterintuitive, but higher tax brackets encourage businesses to spend more. If you make 2 million in profits, but everything after the first million is taxed at 90%, maybe you reinvest that second million into your employees or the like so that it isn’t profit and you avoid that tax. Of course, in today’s world of stock buybacks, they’d probably use the money on that, but that could also be reined in. And executive pay would probably be another favorite spending choice, even more than it already is.

        Of course, the various interdependent systems that create our economic conditions and our societal expectations are complex enough that there is no one answer. Germany requires a portion of the board be employee representatives, for example, which seems like a good way to improve both working conditions and the disparity between executive compensation and worker compensation. Other options include wealth taxes that keep companies and individuals from sitting on money; universal income and healthcare to keep people spending and secure when out of work; minimum wage increases; or restrictions on the disparity between executive and median wages.

        That said, we live in a capitalist society, so it should have been obvious that those with capital would want to keep as much of the value produced as possible. The idea of shorter working hours for a good living was always predicated on the workers cooperating to force the owners to go with it.

    2. The Prussian model of education that is standard among the U.S. public school system is engineered to produce obedient, compliant workers used to any and every encroachment into their personal space. The constant monitoring is preparing them to accept the same treatment in the workplace when they are adults. Couple that with all of the gathered data being monetized, sold, exchanged(especially with government/law enforcement), and profited from by a 3rd party, for children and adults alike.

  3. I worked with Tesla @ a number of different suppliers – it wasn’t everyone, but just about everyone I ever worked with there was absolutely miserable and looking for a way out.

    None of the OEMs are perfect, far from it actually, but Tesla always stood out as a soul-crushing place.

  4. My own personal experience with unions is thoroughly negative, but I’m a firm believer in people having the freedom to vote for what they want. So as for the actual question, I don’t have strong feelings either way. If the employees want a union, more power to them.

    My larger question is why, in a time of skyrocketing wages for the bottom quartile, and record low unemployment, would anyone tolerate working in a place like that for $19/hr? If you can pass a drug test and are a relatively normal human being, any number of places would fall over themselves to hire you at similar wages or higher. Vote with your feet. They’ll get the message.

  5. “The employees, who label data for Tesla’s Autopilot technology at the company’s plant in Buffalo, New York, sent an email to Musk early Tuesday with their intent to unionize.”

    For those of you (which is probably all of you) who are utterly clueless what this means:
    AI is bullshit and does not exist. It’s literally an army of people who have their every movement monitored, every second of every day at work, manually labeling JPEGs. They’re solving CAPTCHAs. And if it takes them “too long” to label something, an entirely arbitrary number set by someone they’ve never met who’s never done the work, an automated system fires them.

    “As that story notes, the Buffalo plant has more than 800 Autopilot analysts who help “train” the semi-autonomous driving system for around $19 per hour.”

    “See?! They’re not underpaid!”
    Okay. You sit at your computer for the next 10 hours. You will do nothing but look at pictures and label things in them. You have 5 seconds to label the child, 5 seconds to label the dog, 5 seconds to identify the crosswalk, and so on. Every time you take more than 5 seconds, you receive a demerit. Every time you stop labeling images for more than a minute, you receive a demerit. If you leave your desk to go to the bathroom, you receive a demerit. If you take too long reading the company-wide memo, you receive a demerit. 10 demerits and you’re fired and put on the no-rehire list.

    For this you will be paid $19 per hour as a “contractor.” You will not receive overtime pay. Your pay does not include dental, vision, or any health insurance whatsoever. If you are 30 seconds late, you receive a demerit. If you leave 30 seconds early, you receive a demerit. If you are more than 30 minutes late, you are fired for no-showing. If you call in sick, you are fired for no-showing.
    And all of these demerits and firings are entirely automated. Monitoring systems that do nothing than go “he didn’t move his mouse for 30 seconds, demerit. He took too long to click next picture, demerit. He spent 2 minutes reading the email, demerit. The webcam shows he left his desk, demerit. The software can’t identify a face on webcam, demerit.”

    Still going to sign up?
    Yeah. I didn’t think so.

    What do you think of the prospect of a unionized Tesla, even if it’s only this one group? How will Musk act in response to this?

    We already know the answer to this. Melon long ago decided laws only apply when they’re convenient to his personal vendettas, and he is among the pettiest children on the planet.
    So he will do exactly what he has done before. He will throw a temper tantrum, fire everyone starting with the lawyers telling him that the firings are illegal, destroy people’s lives, taunt everyone including the government, and face no consequences.

  6. I mean Musk’s draconian treatment of his employees is well documented at this point. He’s just your run of the mill antisocial hyper capitalist/tech ghoul who only cares about enriching himself and a select handful of his cronies. I’m sure he’d have his employees working 168 hour weeks for $0 and sitting on shit buckets if he could, you know…the SUPER HARDCORE way, or something.

    I hope Tesla employees succeed, just as I hope everyone standing up against out of control corporations succeeds. These companies and their billionaire owners are not our friends.

      1. That is an incredibly naive position to take. Just changing jobs isn’t easy, especially in a country like the US where health benefits are tied strongly to employment and losing them could bankrupt you in an emergency.

        1. No other jobs?


          If not now, when? Are you doomed to take the first job in the mines of Moria and work there till death?

          Also – I suspect that most people advocating for unionism don’t have a lot of personal experience with them. Like all forms of government the actuality is way different than the ideal. (Think Communism where Union Officials are the Commissariat, and dues payers are party member). On paper it looks great.

          I was a Labor Negotiator for a company with 50,000 employees scattered around the country, and I LOVED unions. Only one guy to make happy – the local president. Sure the first year of unionization is great – knowing that is coming, I’ve kept wages down in the year of the vote, and the increase you’ll get is what you’d have gotten anyhow if unionization weren’t on the horizon..but you think the union got it for you. And the bonus program? Great I control it and I’d rather give bonuses than pay increases any day.

          Now most unions are either half-ass related to your industry or small guys. They don’t have any professional knowledge of how to negotiate. The second year the Local President gets promoted out of the unit (heh) and the only candidate is some guy who is always in trouble and wants to use the union to fight the man. He gets bought off with a parking space, and being told smart he is.

          Anyhow most working condition matters are controlled by state and federal law or OSHA regulations now days, so there’s not a lot beyond scheduling… if you want the union to control your retirement plan it makes no difference to management but I’d advise against it… (privately).

          Got a problem – tell it to your union rep. See if they are willing to spend the money to go to arbitration…for you. And if you’re not dues payer- ? Anyhow, whatever made you unhappy will be forgotten by the next union contract negotiation …in 4 or 5 years.

          Oh, tough guy unions like the Teamsters? I liked them a lot. They were strictly business. As long as money’s there, I can run the company any way I like.

          I also liked having good union reps. The managers do stupid things and if the Rep tells me, I can fix it right away. The union makes a good hammer to pound them with.

          Oh, and I’m kind of surprised that Tesla even has jobs in New York. The expenses there are high, and I don’t think there is any particular skill there that couldn’t be found elsewhere. Raise expenses and hassle, and the workers may end up looking for new jobs anyhow – see: California.


        Guys! He solved it! If you’re a data analyst in the Buffalo area, and Musk treats you like absolute dogshit, just don’t work there. He is tracking your keystrokes in an effort to figure out how much work you’re doing and doing it so damn stringently that you might piss your pants because you are avoiding bathroom breaks, but its ok cause just don’t have to work there!
        Its an absolutely brilliant piece of analytical thinking by user Lokki.


        Fuck’s sake.

  7. My Turn? Elon will probably tweet out that the Buffalo employees aren’t actually necessary and make some really sad attempt at a joke involving Buffalo wings or some shit.

  8. “Workers at the plant told Bloomberg News that Tesla monitors keystrokes to track how long employees spend per task and how much of the day they spend actively working. This leads some to avoid taking bathroom breaks, six employees said.”

    During college I worked part time for the USPS at a Remote Encoding Center which sort of like this Tesla location in the story we were there for when the machines couldn’t handle it. Only instead of helping machines drive we were helping them read, whenever the OCR system couldn’t read an address it sent the image to us and we would key it in. And let me tell you the Postal Workers Union was all up in that place. Union rep here, union rep there, the union was all over everywhere.

    And guess what? They still counted our keystrokes. We had to average 12,000 Keystrokes/hr, which roughly equates to 90WPM if we had been typing language. We also had to encode so many images per hour AND they monitored how many keystrokes we typed on each image. They had macros at the top and side of the keyboards they expected us to use for commonly entered key combinations and using them would bring down your keystroke/image ratio.

    We had regimented breaks, every 55 mins you had a 5 or 10 min break alternating and if you were there long enough you had 30min break where you could sneak a meal. And let me tell you, you better hope your bladder was in sync with this break schedule. Sure you could get up during your shift and notify the supervisor that you were going to the pisser but there went your metrics for the entire week from that one break. I always joked that if you died the Post Office would give you a half day off to attend your own funeral but you were going to get a red mark for it.

    These guys are complaining about feeling like robots, I know the feeling because I’ve been there. There were posters on every wall saying that you’re an important and integral part of the team but every word out of every supervisors’ mouth told you that you were easily replaceable. It was like psychological torture and the union didn’t help with that at all. Was somebody too cold sitting at their terminal typing away? Well the union would sue over that making it worse for the rest of us. Someone wearing sandals cut their toe on the desk? Union sues again, now we all have to wear closed toe shoes. Maybe these guys will have a better union than the Post Office of the 90s. I wish them luck.

  9. Pretty soon he will sell the auto manufacturing business and keep the charging network. I hope the employees unionize, but he’ll set fire to the works first.

  10. Generally I’m against unions, because they stick around for too long after the problem they were founded for is solved, then they become big bloated bureaucracies that mainly exist to continue their existence, not to help the worker, meanwhile they’re siphoning tons of money that should be going to the workers, in many unions even the workers who don’t want or have to be part of the union they still get their wages garnished to pay union dues.

    I think that businesses being owned by the the buisness’s employees is a better way to accomplish what unions are formed to accomplish, as they have invested interest in the success of their company.

      1. Not in the slightest, however that’s mostly because the children have no right to the money they earn most of the time because they HAVE TO have a joint bank account with one or both of their parents to have a bank account and the parent can just take the funds out out the account and there ain’t anything the kid can do about it.

        If kids could make their own money and keep it in their OWN bank account then that would be a different situation that would warrant discussion, but in general Kids should be Kids, they shouldn’t have to worry about money, sadly many kids in the US do have to worry about money.

  11. Chevy needs to convice GM to just stop selling the Sierra and just sell a “Platinum” Silverado, as the Silverado/Sierra sales combined top Ford’s F150 sales. So they’re leaving bragging rights on the table because Brandscaping. The Sierra and Hummer EV are also all GMC sells, so would let them retire a brand/streamline dealerships, call it the Chevy Hummer and rope it in with the rest of their EV lineup.

    I know I know, Buick/GMC is usually the dealership but that’s another brand they really don’t need when Chevy sells versions of almost all the Buicks, still a little too much brandscaping going on, maybe the next recession will clear some out, they can leave Buick to China.

    1. “The Sierra and Hummer EV are also all GMC sells”


      You forgot the Canyon, Terrain, Acadia, Yukon and Yukon XL, and Savanna Van.

      Now, are any of those totally unique, no. But they definitely sell them. They’ve also had many opportunities to get rid of GMC and haven’t, so it must be profitable in a way that it wouldn’t be under Chevy.

      1. Ah hadn’t had my coffee yet, good catch, and yeah all those are basically upscaled Chevy’s, but you can also buy the Chevy version for just about as much. So I understand from a marketing perspective as they’ve pointed upscale customers that way, but from a business perspective, supporting 2 brands(or 3), when 1 will do is costing them money. They could come out with ‘diamond’ levels of the Chevy cars and get rid of Buick/GMC and save some money.

  12. Musk’s ill-gotten gains and mistreatment of his employees is neither exceptional, nor will it likely see any meaningful challenge.

    Unions in the U.S. have become too corporatized AND government regulated to be effective. The recent railworkers’ strike and its failure to get them something as basic as sick days, with the Federal government making threats toward the strikers on behalf of the rail companies, is prima facie evidence of this. Membership has been dropping for good reason, as Union effectiveness is not what it used to be. Unions need to go back to their anarchist roots, and tell federal regulators to go fuck themselves, and engage in real strikes. This government would no-doubt call it “economic terrorism” and the Homeland Security Department/FBI/ect will unconstitutionally spy upon and harass the participants if it got to that point, just as it did to striking dockworkers in 2002. So be it. Until then, Unions will fail to affect significant change, because the vast majority of them are compromised by the interests of capital with the oversized bloated Federal government enforcing the interests of capital, and I’m doubtful this union trying to form in Tesla will be any exception to this trend.

    1. Unions nowadays cannot just strike whenever they feel justified to do so, Reagan made sure of it in 1981. Labor laws in the US have been continuously weakened for half a century precisely for this purpose. Blaming the unions for having less power is some next-level victim blaming.

      1. You misunderstood my post. Unions themselves have been coopted by the same powerful interests they’re supposedly fighting against, and that is a problem. The workers need to be willing to unionize themselves, without being an official government-approved Union, and willing to NOT follow the laws if that is what is required in order for their demands to be met. As long as everyone does what they are told, effective change will not be possible within the context of a legal apparatus specifically manipulated by the interests of capital to prevent such change.

        The Air Traffic Controllers in 1981 should have all walked off, and all refused to be arrested for walking off, defending themselves with whatever means necessary if it came to it. They were in the right, regardless of whether the law or its enforcers agreed.

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