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Musk faces union efforts at Tesla

Russ Mitchell, Los Angeles Times on

Published in Business News

SAN FRANCISCO -- What happens inside Tesla Inc.'s electric car factory in Fremont, Calif., this year will torque Tesla toward a sustainable future or send it on a road to ruin.

Everything at Tesla depends on the success of the Model 3, a mid-priced electric car the company plans to churn out by the hundreds of thousands each year. The Model 3 needs to be a big hit to justify high stockholder expectations and billions of dollars in capital investment at Tesla, which now sells not only cars but also batteries and solar roofs.

Mass producing high-quality, low-cost cars is a tough challenge, especially for a company that has never done it before. Chief Executive Elon Musk has his hands full.

As the Model 3 pressure builds to a critical state, the United Auto Workers union has arrived on the scene to try to organize workers at the nonunion plant.

Whether the UAW enjoys solid support among the workforce of 6,200 or just a few chance-takers, a union drive will divert Musk's attention at a time when he can least afford distraction. Unlike in many states, California laws and regulations make it relatively easy for union organizers to solicit converts inside the workplace without overt retribution from management.

Musk, a South African immigrant whose rise in the business world occurred in union-thin Silicon Valley, is getting a taste of what most Californians take for granted. As Harley Shaiken, a labor professor at UC Berkeley, puts it: "California overall is a labor-friendly state."

That fact struck a nerve with Musk last week when a worker at Tesla's Fremont factory, Jose Moran, uploaded a critical post on Medium. It lambasted the electric car maker for alleged employee mistreatment: preventable injuries, long hours, bad ergonomics, few if any promotions, safety issues. Many of those complaints, he said, had been ignored.

Not only that, Moran announced that he was talking with the United Auto Workers about organizing workers at the plant.

Musk reacted with a flurry of tweets: The "guy was paid by the UAW to join Tesla and agitate for a union," he tweeted to the website Gizmodo. "He doesn't really work for us, he works for the UAW."

"Tesla is the last car company left in California, because costs are so high," came another tweet. Moran's piece, Musk continued, is "morally outrageous."

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