Production is resuming at Tesla’s flagship factory in Fremont, California, a major victory for company founder and CEO Elon Musk over local public health and elected officials’ efforts to keep people safe from the novel coronavirus.
Spared the worst of the outbreak but concerned with keeping the COVID-19 pandemic in check, Alameda County officials had asked the outre industrialist to hold off reopening for just a few more weeks. A pandemic skeptic who first resisted closing his factory in March and raged against what he considered a loss of liberty, Musk refused the call, and ultimately got his way. He did so by pressing every advantage he had to force the issue in his favor—including his workforce.
On Monday, Tesla’s in-house counsel sent a company-wide email to some of the company’s roughly 10,000 workers, informing them that the state had given Tesla the all-clear to resume production and that it was time to come back to work. The state had in fact not given Tesla the all-clear.
Employees were free to refuse and stay home, according to the email, which posted to a Reddit forum on Monday night but quickly removed by moderators. But if they choose to do so, they would also choose to go unpaid and risk pandemic unemployment benefits, Tesla counsel Valerie Capers Workman wrote.
“If you do not feel comfortable coming into work, you can stay home and will be on Unpaid Leave,” Workman wrote. “Choosing not to report in to work may eliminate or reduce eligibility for unemployment depending on your state’s unemployment agency.”
Using his people as a bargaining chip worked. The Fremont factory’s parking lot was full, media reported. Elon was there on the line, taunting law enforcement to come and get him. They didn’t. Instead, late Tuesday, Alameda County health officials issued a statement: Tesla would reopen, ahead of schedule.
Elon Musk won again. But to do it, Musk may have violated state and federal laws, labor experts told Observer.
The email “reads like a threat,” said Ken Jacobs, executive director of the UC Berkeley Center for Labor Research and Education, in an email to Observer. “The point seems to be to scare workers into coming back.”
County officials did not respond to requests for interviews. Tesla did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Tesla is restarting production today against Alameda County rules. I will be on the line with everyone else. If anyone is arrested, I ask that it only be me.
— Elon Musk (@elonmusk) May 11, 2020
But had Musk not compelled his workforce to show up and start building cars again—at the penalty of penury if they refused—Musk would have had no bluff to call. The workers were his leverage. And Monday’s email from Workman was the key inflection point.
By misleading workers in telling them that the factory had all the all-clear, and by coercing them by telling them that they’d be out of money if they did not come in, Musk appears to have made a value judgment. Whether Musk’s company is being coercive, which is legal if ugly, or behaving in a way that is actionable would ultimately be up to a judge.
Either way, this is what Elon Musk does, resigned California organized labor officials said.
“Elon Musk is no stranger to breaking the law, or putting his workers at risk, and it appears here he is doing both,” alleged Steve Smith, a spokesman for the California Labor Federation.
(The Labor Federation works primarily with unions—which, very famously, have failed to organize Musk’s factory, in no small part because Musk is vehemently opposed. Representatives from the United Auto Workers, who have been trying to organize the Fremont Tesla plant for years, did not respond to emails or phone calls from Observer.)
Smith drew a comparison to meatpacking plants, enclosed factory floors with workers packed in close quarters. Precise details about social-distancing and other measures Tesla is taking to prevent Model 3 production from becoming a virus factory were not available.
Though Workman’s email mentioned personal protective equipment available on Tesla company shuttles—where factory workers commute from as far as 66 miles away, plus however long they drove to the shuttle stop—there was no mention of safety measures at the workplace. Alameda County declined to provide any details regarding Tesla’s plan.
“He’s not only opening the facility” in defiance of authorities, “but he’s threatening workers who may be rightfully scared of returning to work, and threatening their livelhoods if they don’t,” Smith said.
“This is part of a long pattern at Tesla,” he added. “For us, the concern is and has always been [Musk’s] disregard for the health and safety of his workforce.”