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What the GM Strike Means For the Fremont Tesla Factory

After several years of trying to unionize, GM’s strike in the East could tip the scales

By Evan Symon, September 19, 2019 6:27 am

For the first time since the early 20th century, a General Motors strike has not had a striking factory in California. After the closure of the Fremont Factory in 2009, GM hasn’t come come back. Yet, as the 2019 GM strike seems to rage every place else but California, it’s last closed factory here could be seeing a spark in unions. 

After Tesla bought the Fremont plant in 2009 and started producing Tesla electric cars, one major component of car factories was missing – the United Auto Workers. Tesla has largely blocked unions. Prior attempts to unionize in 2017 and 2018 were stopped by various means, including supposed intimidation tactics and not allowing union literature inside the factory.

GM workers today want better pay, more secure jobs, and better healthcare. GM has responded that lower sales means that they have to cut costs and let people go to stay competitive. 

While the pay is generally lower than other factories in the East, and job security and health care are often wanted, that isn’t what concerns many workers at the Tesla Factory – it’s the conditions.

We spoke with a factory worker, ‘John’, about the Fremont facility and what’s happening, and about his concern about the conditions.

“More money would be nice, but it’s not about that,” John explained. “We need to be safe here, and to work reasonable times.”

“We can’t get through to management, so having a union get through that would be worth it. A lot of workers here think that paying union dues for that protection so we don’t get crippled or die, is worth it.”

John confirmed CNBC reports from two years ago about how workers were worked to the brink on the factory floor, working so long that management began giving red bull to keep workers awake. Even two years after the report, many workers are still facing tiring hours due to the high demand of Teslas.

“Any talk of a union is quashed. Regardless of how anyone feels about unions, it’s still an American right to join one to achieve better conditions and achieve our own American Dream.

We always see things about how unions are corrupt, how they’ll be a wall to management, and how they only care about money. At least one of my supervisors told me this. And, even if those are true, which they aren’t,  a lot of workers here still want to join. It’s that bad.”

Other works have claimed that there is a fear that workers trying to unionize will also lose their jobs over it, and be told that it was for ‘performance issues’ or some other excuse.

The National Labor Relations Board (NLRB), has had Tesla under investigation on and off over its practices for over two years.

Tesla has said in response that they do care about employee’s health and well-being, and that they offer a good wage for more than 40,000 workers at the Fremont Plant. A worker who wished to remain anonymous told the Globe “It’s a good job. It’s a factory job, so it’s not what you’d call glamorous. But it’s pretty fair all in all. Many workers don’t see why they need a union if everyone is being treated fairly.”

Tesla has also said in a statement over its conditions and injury issues: “Reducing excess overtime and improving safety are extremely important. This is why we hired thousands of additional team members to create a third shift, which has reduced the burden on everyone. Moreover, since the beginning of Tesla production at Fremont five years ago, there have been dedicated health and safety experts covering the factory and we hold regular safety meetings with operations leaders. Since the majority of the injuries in the factory are ergonomic in nature, we have an ergonomics department focused exclusively on this issue.

The net result is that since January 1st, our total recordable incident rate (TRIR) is under 3.3, which is less than half the industry average of 6.7.”

So what does this mean for the Tesla factory in Fremont? 

If GM workers succeed and get the pay, job security, and healthcare they’re striking for, a successful strike could show workers in Fremont that strikes and unions can still get things done.

“That’s it for a lot of people here,” John stated. “No one will join if they think it can’t get anything done. But if this one works, and believe me, both the workers and management are paying attention to it, then we’re going to be seeing a lot more people asking about it. We’ll see more people wanting to join. It’s happened before. Those first big strikes in Michigan in the 30’s had a domino effect across the state, and onto places like Ohio.”

“In 2019, a successful strike in Michigan will hit us here in Fremont.”

“We are afraid of what will happen if we unionize,” John added. “But if workers, especially the younger ones who really don’t like the idea of them or grew up without them, see what they can do, we just might have a union here.”

The anonymous worker gave his take.

“They don’t have to work here,” he said, audibly sighing on the phone. “If we get a union involved, then that means we might see a shift go, or they move to Alabama or something. A lot of us are getting by fine. This will screw us all over, including people like me who don’t want anything to do with them.”

Both of our sources noted that management had been ‘jumpy’ since Monday, and that televisions behind closed doors audibly had coverage of the strike going on. Both of our sources also said that the result of the GM strike will sway many workers on what they want.

It remains to be seen if the GM strike is ultimately successful. But it very well may hold the key to the future for the UAW setting up shop in Fremont once again.

Evan Symon

Evan V. Symon is the Senior Editor for the California Globe. Prior to the Globe, he reported for the Pasadena Independent, the Cleveland Plain Dealer, and was head of the Personal Experiences section at Cracked. He can be reached at evan@californiaglobe.com.
Evan Symon
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