Labor trends give Tesla workers a shot at unionizing


Published February 21, 2023

Erin Hatton.

It was announced recently that workers at the Buffalo Tesla factory had started a unionization campaign. The group is hoping to bring, among other things, better wages and benefits to employees at the facility. The factory builds solar panels and charging station components, and it improves self-driving car software.

If successful, this would be the first Tesla facility to have a union. The manufacturer and its owner, Elon Musk, have resisted unionization efforts for several years. The National Labor Relations Board has found that Musk previously fired employees who have been involved with union campaigns, as well as threatened employees with loss of stock options if they unionize.

Erin Hatton, professor of sociology, College of Arts and Sciences, is an expert on labor movements. Hatton believes that national and local trends lay a good foundation for union organizing in Buffalo. Tesla’s anti-union stance could either push workers toward a union, or pull them away, she says. Whatever happens, recent unionizing efforts suggest it will be an unpredictable road for workers.

Hatton spoke with UBNow about the Tesla unionization activity in Buffalo.

It’s been five years since the first unionization effort at Tesla. Are you seeing anything that might make this newest attempt successful?

I think there are several things that have changed the Tesla/union landscape over the past five years. First, Tesla’s project in Buffalo — once full of promise — has been sullied by controversy, severe problems and unkept promises. Second, waves of unionization efforts have recently swept the U.S., including the Starbucks wave that started in Buffalo. These dynamics combined lay a strong foundation for union organizing at Tesla in Buffalo.

When you have leadership — or the owner — of a company that is very combative against unions, does that incentivize workers to push harder for unionization?

I think companies’ anti-union stance can both pull workers away from and push workers toward unions. On the one hand, it can be a severe disincentive to organize because workers know that they will face an uphill battle all the way. Organizing is a lot of work, and all the more so when they have to fight tooth and nail at every turn — which might include strikes or lockouts in which they would lose much needed wages. They likely also worry about the repercussions they will face. Even though such repercussions are illegal — organizing is a “protected activity” and so companies cannot punish workers in any way for trying to organize a union — they happen all the time. Workers are routinely fired under false pretenses for their organizing efforts. On the other hand, companies’ anti-union animus may also galvanize workers. If the leadership of a company is strongly anti-union, that conveys to workers just how much the boss has to lose — and how much workers have to gain — by organizing one.

There have been recent successful and unsuccessful unionization attempts at bigger companies, such as Amazon and Starbucks. What are some reasons why many of these attempts are unsuccessful?

Unionization is extremely challenging in this country because of U.S. labor laws, which give employers a great deal of power over this process. For instance, they can hold “captive audience” meetings with employees to talk about their views about unions, but union organizers are not allowed on company property, which makes organizing very difficult. So, it’s not necessarily the union efforts that fall short in some cases. In fact, because of the severe imbalance in labor law, I would usually expect most union efforts to fail. The odds are so great. What is surprising is the number of unions that have succeeded, as well as the number of new groups of workers who are trying to organize against the odds.