On Wednesday, Tesla Founder and CEO Elon Musk responded to President Joe Biden for failing to mention Tesla when talking about electric car manufacturing in his state of the union address earlier this week, by inviting the United Auto Workers (UAW) union to hold a vote at the Tesla Fremont plant.
President Biden, a long-time supporter of labor unions, has been at odds with Musk since being sworn into office last year. Ever since the Tesla plant in Fremont first opened in 2010, Musk has shied away from having workers unionize, and has repeatedly stopped the UAW from coming in largely by keeping wages high. Musk has compared this pay to what workers are paid under union-backed plants as a way to halt unions, even mentioning it in a 2017 letter that severely criticized auto worker unions.
However, Musk has also lost some ground on unionization in recent years. A 2018 National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) complaint criticized Tesla’s confidentially agreement, saying that it stops employees from talking about unionizing. The NLRB also noted that they would need to rehire and compensate a union activist who was fired and remove a tweet that implied that Musk would remove lucrative stock options to employees if they voted to unionize. While Musk and the company challenged it, the NLRB board ruled last year against Tesla. The NLRB, in addition to a 2019 ruling that found the company guilty of threatening and interrogating workers over union activity, cemented for many that Tesla was firmly anti-union.
President Biden, meanwhile, who has vowed to being the most pro-union President in history, has largely ignored Tesla and it’s place as America’s largest electric car manufacturer.
“Biden has been very much pro-union for years and does not want to lose his status as being a ‘friend of the blue collar community’,” said Gus Thompson, a former car manufacturer and union relations executive at plants in Ohio and Michigan, to the Globe on Thursday. “The fact that Tesla is doing so well and is moving leaps and bounds over what was thought to be the national standard in car manufacturing and union work from the big three is distressing to him. The companies didn’t expect electric vehicles to take off the way they did, or that Tesla of all companies would be leading the pack. There are many who are not calling GM, Ford, and Chrysler the big three any more because of Tesla moving in.”
“And because Tesla doesn’t have unionized employees at Fremont and doesn’t plan on them at a new plant in Austin, many are worried about this helping kill off the UAW even faster, especially since Tesla wages are high. Actually the highest in the country at that. Biden can’t afford to speak well of them politically.”
Biden continued to not include Tesla in automobile manufacturing discussion during his state of the union this week, mentioning Ford and GM for creating electric cars but ignoring Tesla, which helped spur the American electric car manufacturing movement in the 2010s. As a result, many commenters on news channels and social media pointed out the snub. One tweet by Kiss guitarist Gene Simmons went viral, bringing it to the attention of millions on Wednesday and growing quickly from there.
“The President doesn’t mention Tesla, perhaps because Tesla is non-union and moved to Texas, a ‘right to work state,” Simmons tweeted. “Give Elon Musk/Tesla its due. They are game changers and should be heralded.”
Actually, @elonmusk makes a solid point to Pres @JoeBiden. The President doesn’t mention Tesla, perhaps because Tesla is non-union and moved to Texas, a “right to work” state. Give Elon Musk/Tesla its due. They are game changers and should be heralded. https://t.co/uZeJMVujAQ
— Gene Simmons (@genesimmons) March 2, 2022
With the issue quickly growing, Musk finally responded Wednesday night, defending Tesla’s high wages as a way to counteract negative unemployment in the Bay Area and inviting the UAW to Fremont to hold a unionization vote at any time.
“Our real challenge is Bay Area has negative unemployment, so if we don’t treat and compensate our (awesome) people well, they have many other offers and will just leave. I’d like hereby to invite UAW to hold a union vote at their convenience,” wrote Musk late Wednesday. “Tesla will do nothing to stop them.”
Our real challenge is Bay Area has negative unemployment, so if we don’t treat and compensate our (awesome) people well, they have many other offers and will just leave!
I’d like hereby to invite UAW to hold a union vote at their convenience. Tesla will do nothing to stop them.
— Elon Musk (@elonmusk) March 3, 2022
The UAW has yet to respond to the offer. Industry insiders have noted however that Musk’s challenge won’t be taken lightly.
“The UAW cannot afford to let Musk win and keep showing them up with high wages and stock options,” added Thompson. “They know that they can’t win right now there and they don’t want to be embarrassed. But the gauntlet has also been thrown down now. And for the UAW, which has been long struggling, they can’t afford to take on a public loss like that and maybe convince some non-Tesla plants that they don’t need them too.”