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Tesla workers claim they were fired in retaliation for union drive

A group of Tesla workers say the electric-car maker fired employees a day after the start of a union organising drive and asked a US regulator to intervene.

Workers United on Wednesday announced an effort to form Tesla’s first labour union at the company’s Gigafactory 2 plant in Buffalo, New York. On Thursday, the union filed a complaint with the National Labor Relations Board claiming that 18 had lost their jobs because of the campaign.

Tesla “terminated these individuals in retaliation for union activity and to discourage union activity”, the union said as it requested an injunction to stop the firings.

Elon Musk, Tesla chief executive, has been outspoken about his dislike of labour unions. The NLRB ordered him to delete a 2018 tweet saying that if Tesla workers voted to unionise, they would be paying dues “for nothing” and illegally threatened to withhold their stock options. He did not delete it.

In 2019, a federal judge in California found Tesla liable for sabotaging employees’ efforts to unionise, including by banning employees from wearing union shirts and instructing security guards to harass employees who were passing out pro-union flyers.

Retaliating against workers for attempting to form a union is a violation of US labour law. If they uphold the Workers United complaint, federal officials could force Tesla to rehire and pay lost wages to the affected workers. The NLRB provided a similar remedy for seven Starbucks workers in Memphis last year who were fired after the managers learned that they were working to launch a union at their café.

Tesla and Musk did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

One of the union leaders who said she was fired, Arian Berek, worked as a data analyst and “trainer” for Tesla’s Autopilot driver assistance system. She said that while she had recently missed work to recover from Covid-19 and for bereavement leave, she was told she was “exceeding expectations” shortly before the organising drive went public.

“I feel blindsided . . . I strongly feel this is in retaliation to the committee announcement and it’s shameful.”

Berek is a member of the 25-person committee behind the union campaign at Gigafactory 2. The 1.2mn square-foot facility employs 800 workers who manufacture charging equipment and solar panels and train Autopilot software, according to Tesla’s website.

All of the fired workers were data analysts that labelled information collected by the Autopilot system, and several had participated in conversations about the union at the facility, Workers United said. However, other workers involved with the 25-person committee have not been fired, according to the union.

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