Tesla’s bout with UAW union may have ripple effects in Silicon Valley

Tesla’s long-simmering relationship with the United Auto Workers is heating up again.

As part of an ongoing effort to organize the electric automaker’s Fremont, California, assembly factory, the union has filed a string of unfair labor-practice charges and safety complaints with the National Labor Relations Board. These include allegations that Tesla restricted union-organizing efforts, tried to stop employees from discussing safety issues and retaliated against pro-union workers. Tesla has denied all the charges.

The contentious relationship between Tesla founder and CEO Elon Musk and the UAW has been going on for more than two years. Musk has criticized the union, and last May, in response to its complaints to the NLRB, he tweeted, “Nothing stopping Tesla team at our car plant from voting union. Could do so [tomorrow] if they wanted.”

Legally that’s true, but the workforce has never taken a vote, and the UAW won’t comment as to if or when they might. So the hearing that began last summer resumes today at the NLRB office in Oakland. Lawyers for both sides will file additional briefs with administrative law judge Amita Tracy.

While an ultimate winner in the case could take years following the judge’s ruling and appeals, when it happens, the outcome could have a far-reaching, high-stakes ripple effect across Silicon Valley and beyond.

If the 400,000-member UAW prevails, the ripple effect won’t necessarily impact other U.S. auto manufacturers operating in the United States. Many are already unionized, and others have avoided unionization by opening factories in non-union and right-to-work states.

But fellow tech companies could feel the effects. After all, if Tesla’s workers eventually organize, employees at Amazon, Google and other non-auto tech giants could be emboldened to follow.

“It’s historic that the UAW is involved with Tesla,” said Harley Shaiken, a professor at the University of California Berkeley who specializes in labor issues, “and what happens here, I think, will have ramifications beyond the company itself.” It would be a high-tech company that is unionized, he added, “but it would also be a start-up in the auto industry, not one of the traditional Detroit automakers that would be organized.”

In the topsy-turvy realm of disruptors of traditional industries and legacy companies, Tesla is a sort of hybrid — an innovator of both renewable-energy technology and automobile manufacturing. Musk founded the company as part of his grand strategy to transform not only the auto sector but also aerospace (SpaceX), solar energy (SolarCity) and even underground tunneling (The Boring Co.). To get there, the South Africa-born entrepreneur espouses Silicon Valley’s meritocracy model, where enthusiastic, highly productive executives, managers, engineers and hourly workers are well paid and receive attractive benefits and perks.

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