Tesla Employees Pump Brakes on Plant Reopening

Despite promises from Tesla’s outspoken CEO, employees at the electric car manufacturer’s Fremont factory say they feel the company is putting profit over them.

One week, his car was keyed. The next, part of his side-view mirror was kicked off in a fruitless act of aggression. But despite parking on the streets of relatively-safe Potrero Hill, random vandalism is a regular occurrence when you own a Tesla in San Francisco. 

“Tesla is a symbol of tech and wealth inequality,” says Erik Hansen, who drives a Model 3. He suspects the vandals were driven by anti-gentrification angst, which he sympathizes with — his wife was born and raised in San Francisco, and he seems regretful over the car’s techy associations, repeating frequently that he bought the car in the interest of sustainability, not status.

Nevertheless, he understands that the sight of the sleek electric cars conjure a certain archetype in the minds of many: that of a privileged, coastal, liberal elite. The kind of young, Elon Musk devotee who might pontificate about the existential crisis of climate change while simultaneously exacerbating the housing crisis with their ability and willingness to pay high housing costs. 

But that’s not all Hansen’s ride symbolizes. In the wake of the coronavirus pandemic, and Tesla CEO Elon Musk’s very public battle with local officials over COVID-19-related work restrictions, the car has become enmeshed with Musk’s brash brand of techno-libertarianism. In the same month that he has fired off a number of Trump-style Twitter rants calling society’s response to the coronavirus “dumb,” and saying politicians should “FREE AMERICA,” Musk defied Alameda County’s shelter-in-place order — calling workers back to Tesla’s Fremont plant on Monday, May 11. Tesla filed a lawsuit against the county in an attempt to force reopening on May 9, which was dismissed on Wednesday. The CEO has also listed over $62.5 million dollars of personal property in California, saying he’ll sell “almost all physical possessions” because stocks were “too high.” 

On Sunday, after facing a week of backlash in the press and in the form of protests by Tesla workers, Musk tweeted “take the red pill” — a reference to 1999 film The Matrix, in which taking a red pill “awakens” Keanu Reeves’ character to the truth of the universe. The reference has become an internet phenomenon amongst the alt-right and conspiracy theorists in recent years. Musk and the musician Grimes also announced the birth of their son earlier this month, named X Æ A-12 — and the couple can’t even agree on how to pronounce the name. The CEO’s media-grabbing eccentricity is at an all-time high. 

“People are going to be turning away from Tesla,” Hansen predicts. 

Perception & Reality

While Tesla owners like Hansen may be dealing with an acute sense of guilt by association and wonder whether they ought to sell their beloved electric vehicles, Tesla factory workers are facing a far tougher choice.

“This is a life and death situation,” says one factory worker, who asked to keep his identity anonymous for fear of retribution. “There’s really no room, and this is a factory with recycled air. You’re basically just breathing on each other.”

It’s scary and frustrating, he adds, as it feels like Musk is putting his and his colleagues’ lives at risk in the pursuit of profit.

A set of site-specific pandemic safety guidelines were generated via meetings between Alameda county and Tesla officials on Tuesday, one day after the factory was reopened against local public health orders. Musk had been threatening to reopen the plant for several weeks, and began calling some workers back to prepare for reopening at least as early as May 6. Donald Trump tweeted his support. 

“We are well-prepared to proceed safely and in alignment with all government precautions and the county’s requested safety measures,” Tesla’s Human Resources department said in an email to California workers the day after county guidelines were reached. A “Return to Work playbook” published by the company on May 9 says they’ve provided Fremont and Alameda County officials with a risk assessment process, updated break room capacities, temperature screening protocol, and factory layouts demonstrating how employees are dispersed throughout the plant. It also says safety precautions are the “result of months of careful planning and preparation” modeled after practices established at the company’s Gigafactory 3 in Shanghai.

But workers say the measures outlined in the HR memo and Return to Work playbook are not being implemented consistently on the Fremont factory floor, where plant management is still fumbling to establish safety guidelines on the fly.

“They’re trying to implement the changes while everyone’s working,” says the same anonymous source. “It makes you wonder if your life is worth 20 bucks an hour.”

Fear & Fealty

Unfortunately for the workers we interviewed, and those working on the factory floor in Fremont, Tesla is the only non-unionized automobile workforce of any major car company in the US, leaving employees with little recourse.

All employees entering the plant since Monday, May 11, are supposed to have their hands sanitized, temperatures taken, and be given masks. By Thursday, May 14, a 20-minute grace period between shifts was instituted to lower the risk of close contact between employees exiting and entering the plant. However, employees say this grace period, which was shortened to just 10 minutes the following day, is insufficient to reduce exposure between shifts numbering over 1,000 people. 

Some break rooms now have plexiglass dividers, and the plant has reportedly experimented with staggering break times. However, employees say these changes are inconsistent throughout the plant and changed repeatedly during the last week. Additionally, though an internal company email sent on May 7 says that employees not following social distancing protocols will be sent home on unpaid leave, multiple sources at the plant say some employees are refusing masks and other protocols without punishment. According to the anonymous employee we spoke to, many of the workers resisting protocols are doing so as a political act of “unmasking” — aligning themselves with the President and their CEO. Others remove their masks in order to breathe after hours of physical labor. 

“I’ve never worked for a company as cultish as Tesla,” says Carlos Gabriel, an assembly line worker who has refused to return to the plant because of safety concerns. There’s no published count of the number of workers refusing to return, but the anonymous source we spoke to estimated that 5-10 percent of workers expected at his shifts were absent. Though Tesla has said workers who refuse to return will remain employed on “unpaid leave,” Gabriel isn’t holding out hope. “If you speak up you’re either fired, frowned upon, or picked on.”

While images of pristine, automated assembly lines are easy to find on the Tesla press website, workers say conditions on the factory floor are often ‘shoulder-to-shoulder.’ Photo: Tesla

Fremont police have reportedly made a few, brief appearances to verify whether social distancing measures are enforced. But no source we spoke with has seen or heard of police inspecting populated parts of the plant, such as busy the assembly lines for the Model 3, which is staffed by over 1,000 workers each day. The anonymous source said he saw police inspecting the Model Y assembly line, which has a different configuration and is not yet fully staffed.

Geneva Bosques, the public affairs manager for the Fremont Police Department, attributes this to a lack of resources, saying that Fremont PD “would simply not have the capacity to do [inspections] for every business in Fremont, as we have thousands.” She says they have not been asked by the County Health Officer to conduct regular onsite visits at the Tesla plant, and that their compliance enforcement has been strictly complaint-based since mid-March. Bosques did say police were given full access to the facility in an inspection last week, and that Tesla had “met or exceeded safety standards in every area we were asked to view.”

However, employees at the plant say safety measures are not taken seriously. “They pretty much say that this is a personal responsibility” for workers to socially distance within the plant, according to the anonymous source. “Everyone’s just mixing around,” he says, and “there’s really no organization” such as guided exit and entry pathways — something he expected after seeing similar measures in grocery stores.  

Additionally, employee evaluations, which determine everything from bonus payouts to whether a worker stays employed at the plant, put workers in an even tougher spot. The language outlining these evaluations, which has not been adjusted to reflect updated safety guidelines, encourages “enthusiasm,” and “teamwork.” According to sources, such attributes are often expressed in the form of employees assisting their colleagues with hands-on tasks that are impossible to execute at a six-foot distance. Attendance is also a core measure for evaluations, and the employees we spoke to fear they can still be punished for not coming into work, though Tesla has said there would be no repercussions for those who stay home due to health concerns.

Sweat Inequity

“It’s a modern day sweatshop,” says Gabriel, who helped organize a small protest outside the Fremont factory on Saturday, May 16. “They’re using all the tactics they can to keep you from leaving.” 

By way of example, Gabriel says that all employees’ accrued paid time off (PTO) was disbursed just before the week began. Tesla said in an email that this was required by California law as a part of an employee’s extended furlough. Gabriel believes the move was made in order to force employees back to the plant, by depriving them of the ability to cash in their PTO reserves while staying home.

Shifts at the plant are arduous and long — lasting between 8 and 12 hours. A 61-year-old assembly line employee named Art, who was only comfortable sharing his first name, says he and his colleagues work “shoulder to shoulder,” with no room for 6 feet of distance. Workers, many of whom travel in Tesla shuttles to the plant from several hours away, wake up as early as 3:30 a.m. to start work at the plant between 5 a.m. and 6 a.m.

Gabriel says he often works 72-hour weeks, and Art says he doesn’t know whether his 8-hour shift will be extended to 10 hours, or when his breaks will be, until he arrives to work that day. Oftentimes, he says, he’s unable to eat the lunch friends and family bring for his shift, because his lunch break will be called hours earlier or later than expected. He adds that shift breaks are the bare legal minimum — 35 minutes for lunch, and 10 minutes to rest every two to three hours — which is difficult to maximize when he has to walk to break rooms located far from the assembly line.

A ‘Disposable’ Workforce

Before Tesla took control of the Fremont plant, the facility was operated by General Motors, which opened the factory in 1962.

Between then and 2010, when Tesla took ownership of the facility, the plant went through some significant changes — most notably when it transformed from a GM-only manufacturing operation to a joint GM-Toyota venture known as New United Motor Manufacturing, Inc., or NUMMI. During its time under GM and then as NUMMI, the factory was a gravitational force for working class people from all over the Bay Area. The only unionized Toyota plant in America, it provided income security, benefits and a defined path to a middle class life. It was more than a factory. It was a symbol of upward mobility.

It had its fair share of issues, as well.

The economic fallout of the plant’s closure loomed large as the final Toyota Corolla rolled off the assembly line in April of 2010. More than 4,700 factory employees were out of work. Local satellite companies, which made parts and other supplies for the massive plant, were impacted as well.

But Tesla took over the former NUMMI campus just six months later, in October of 2010. And in the years that followed, many former NUMMI employees returned to the Fremont factory to work for Musk.

But according to Gabriel, while many in the region appreciate the jobs that Musk provides to locals, the feeling is not mutual.

“They don’t consider themselves part of this community,” says Gabriel, noting that Musk has been looking at moving the factory from the Bay Area for months. While moving the factory from the Bay Area could be catastrophic for the local economy — the plant, which employs 10,000 people, is one of the few remaining regional suppliers of blue-collar jobs — it would also signal the end of an era.

In threatening to move the plant, Gabriel says that Musk is saying, “I’m going to move somewhere that allows me to kill my workers.” For him and those that stand with him, re-opening the plant at the risk of employees’ health is the final straw. 

“We are disposable to them,” Gabriel says.

Tesla did not respond to requests for comment.

Veronica Irwin is a contributing writer to SF Weekly. Follow her on Twitter @vronirwin.

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