Tesla’s unionising pushback violated federal labour law, court finds

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The labour violations occured at Tesla's factory in Fremont, California, which employs 12,000 people. Source: Flickr, Pestoverde

A federal administrative judge has ruled that Tesla violated US labour laws on 12 different occasions where it thwarted efforts by factory employees to form a union.

The judge condemned the electric car and solar firm’s moves to stop off-duty employees distributing union literature in the parking lot; prohibiting staff from wearing pro-union stickers, t-shirts and hats; and probing, disciplining and firing employees over union activity.

The judge also pointed at a tweet by CEO Elon Musk that implied that employees would lose their stock options if they voted in favour of a union.

The missive in question reads: “Nothing stopping Tesla team at our car plant from voting union. Could do so tmrw if they wanted. But why pay union dues & give up stock options for nothing? Our safety record is 2X better than when plant was UAW & everybody already gets healthcare.”

Musk’s tweet, broadcast to more than 22 million followers on Twitter in May 2018, “can only be read by a reasonable employee to indicate that if the employees vote to unionize that they would give up stock options,” according to the judge’s decision, which adds: “Musk threatened to take away a benefit enjoyed by the employees consequently for voting to unionize.”

Pro-union workers wanted to join the United Auto Workers union, flagging long hours, nonergonomic machinery and a shortage of staff at the Fremont, California plant, which employs 12,000 workers.

As is typical in collective bargaining law, the Silicon Valley firm will not be subject to a financial penalty. Instead, it must rescind all the rules prohibiting pro-union activity, clear the record of the reprimanded staffer, rehire the fired employee and reimburse them for lost wages and post and circulate a notice informing employees of their right to promote and join a union. Musk will be required to be present when the same notice is read out loud to employees at a meeting “with the widest possible attendance.”

Embattled firm’s legal dispute with Walmart is ongoing

Tesla is battling litigation on more than one front, after Walmart took it to court in August, claiming that “systemic, widespread failures” were responsible for a series of rooftop blazes on stores between 2012 and 2018.

The lawsuit, which is currently ongoing at the New York County Supreme Court, alleges that seven fires on Walmart rooftops were caused by Tesla solar panel systems and installations. The retailer has asked the firm to remove the systems on all 244 stores where they are currently installed and pay for damages from the fires.

The two companies released a joint statement three days after the lawsuit was filed saying they “looked forward to addressing all issues and reenergising Tesla solar installations at Walmart stores, once all parties are certain that all concerns have been addressed.”

The litigation comes as Tesla sees a mixed outlook on its solar business. In August, the company launched a new US solar rental service in an attempt to reboot its sagging renewables segment.

The firm has witnessed muted solar roll-out levels in recent quarters, hitting record-low deployment figures in Q2 2019 even as energy storage reached new highs. The Silicon Valley player, which acquired SolarCity in 2016lost its spot as the US top residential installer to Sunrun in May.

US solar prospects amid PPA uptake and a changing policy landscape will take centre stage at Solar Media's Solar & Storage Finance USA, to be held in New York on 29-30 October 2019

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