Pity the workers at Tesla, especially if they are female or Black. Few blue-chip American companies need a union more than Tesla, and after delivering outsized results in 2022, observers expect a bumpy 2023 with the EV market in contention among various upstart competitors.
Just this month, Tesla became the subject of an investigation by US safety regulators, as well as a potential class action lawsuit for monopoly practices, had to cut prices to stoke demand, and experienced a downgrade in its stock.
Then, the Washington Post dropped a devastating story with details and staff commentary about how Elon Musk undermined the safety of the company’s “full self-driving” technology by cutting costs and eliminating crucial radar sensors to rush the cars out of the road, against the protest of Tesla’s own engineers, which led to accidents, near-misses, and recalls, in addition to the suspension of the official rollout.
If March is any indication, Tesla is in for a rough year.
That means Tesla workers are likely to suffer even more exploitation and abuse than normal. It’s no secret that Elon Musk demands the blood, sweat, and tears of his staff wherever he is chief.
Nowhere has this been more visible than at Twitter, which Disruption Banking has written about before, predicting its demise. With a consortium of strange bedfellows including Wall Street banks, Silicon Valley VCs, far-right billionaires, and a few Middle Eastern dictators, Musk bought Twitter under the auspices of nurturing the global public square and freeing speech.
What followed was a corporate restructuring for the ages, in the wake of which the platform is in “brittle” shape, according to Musk’s own description. Musk has fired Twitter staff who criticized him, who refused to sleep in their offices and even one who told him the heart-breaking truth that people just didn’t seem interested in his tweets.
Oh, and white supremacists have taken full advantage of the loss of content moderation. As if it could get worse, it has become abundantly clear that Musk is using Twitter to silence criticism and force-feed people his tweets to people who don’t follow him.
On March 1, Elon and his executives got up before an audience of analysts and repeated claims that Tesla has been touting since their first Master Plan in 2006, which shaved 5% off the stock price. The markets have been waiting for a cheaper model, but in the presentation, it appeared as “a car-shaped icon swathed mysteriously in a sheet,” according to Bloomberg.
Bloomberg noted that the numbers were mostly just targets, on which “Tesla (read: Elon) has a habit of overpromising when it comes to investor presentations.”
It was always up to the workers to back up Elon Musk’s promises, which created an environment rife with abuse.
Across Tesla, HR was missing in action. The factory staff received the brunt of the abuse, where sexual harassment and racial slurs, including the N-word, were rampant. Sexual harassment and racism went unchecked.
It was the same at SpaceX. One former SpaceX employee who experienced sexual harassment said HR asked her to create a process for them to respond to complaints.
Workers at Tesla have been trying to unionize for years, but they have been subjected to a playbook of union-busting tactics straight out of the West Virginia coal fields.
Now that Musk owns Twitter, he is using his total operational control over the platform to suspend or shadowban those pesky journalists and workers at his companies who elicit his displeasure.
It’s unclear whether he will be able to totally stifle unions and adverse speech, but I’ll be damned if he isn’t putting up quite a fight.
Tesla Workers Organize
“I often feel like I am working for a company of the future under working conditions of the past.” according to Jose Moran, a Tesla factory worker.
In February 2017, Jose Moran published a blog post on Medium making the case for the unionization of Tesla’s labor force. In the post, Moran detailed his and other workers’ experiences on the factory floor, citing long hours, substandard pay when compared to industry peers, and myriad safety hazards.
The day after Moran published the post, he and three coworkers began passing out pro-union leaflets in the factory parking lot. They were quickly harassed by security guards who took photos of their badges and said they didn’t have a right to be there.
In May 2017, the Guardian published an article about workplace safety at Tesla’s factory in Fremont, California, reporting that since 2014 ambulances had been called over 100 times to the factory “for workers experiencing fainting spells, dizziness, seizures, abnormal breathing, and chest pains.”
In response to the report, Musk commented that he thought the stock price of the company was artificially high and that it should not be judged on that number.
“We’re a money-losing company,” Musk explained. “This is not some situation where, for example, we are just greedy capitalists who decided to skimp on safety in order to have more profits.”
The Musk Playbook for Redirecting Disgruntled Staff
By June 2017, workers at the factory sent a petition to Musk saying they wanted to unionize. The next day, Musk invited Maron to his office, where Musk explained how workers didn’t actually want to organize. When that didn’t work, Musk accused him of working for the United Auto Workers.
Not long after, Musk tried to buy off Moran by suggesting Tesla hire Moran to a salaried position to work on safety issues full-time.
It’s an ingenious tactic, analogous to SpaceX trying to get a victim of sexual harassment to fix their HR process for reports of sexual harassment. When someone is victimized, you just offer them a new job with the purpose of solving the problem that ruined their experience at the company.
The idea was actually a ploy to thwart Moran’s union efforts. Attending the meeting was Gaby Toledano, head of HR, who later responded by email that it was a good idea because salaried employees cannot unionize or advocate for a union.
In 2019, an administrative judge in California ruled that Tesla had violated US labor laws by 12 separate company actions, most of which involved stymying organizing activities. However, the decision was largely toothless in that there was no financial penalty attached to it. Tesla merely had to please curtail the tactics it was using to stymy unionization.
The Greedy Capitalist who Skimped on Safety for Profits
Without collective bargaining power, Musk’s employees continue to be exploited, abused, sexually harassed, and demeaned with racism. Meanwhile, Musk’s personal fortune surpassed every single other person on the planet.
By 2023, Tesla has routinely posted record quarterly profits. Musk’s argument that worker safety must be compromised for the staff to keep their jobs has been decisively disproven. Tesla didn’t need to lay people off, but the company chose to in retaliation for exercising their freedoms.
On February 16th, Tesla fired dozens of employees from an autopilot plant in Buffalo, New York, one day after they announced a union campaign.
Then, they filed a complaint with the US National Labor Relations Board, accusing Tesla of “retaliation for union activity” and “to terrify everyone about the potential consequences of them organizing.”
Tesla deflected the allegation, asserting that these employees had already been cited for poor performance, which was news to one of the employees who had just been told he was “exceeding expectations.”
It has been said that positions of power bring out the character of a person, and that’s doubly true for Musk. As his status has grown, his greed and selfishness have come out in sharper relief.
It sounds like another story of a narcissistic billionaire whose uncontrollable craving for positive affirmation leads him to seek negative attention to fill a void of insecurity. In Musk’s case, it’s certainly hard to understand, given how rich he is and how many weird nerds line up to defend him.
I guess none of that really heals deep psychic wounds from childhood, of which Elon seems to have many. The fact remains that Musk’s self-destructive behavior is absurd and mind-boggling. And it’s getting worse.
Is Elon Musk the CEO we need right now?
Just the last two weeks, Musk’s pathological obsession with tweeting has landed him in boiling-hot water.
On March 7, Elon offered a begrudging apology to a former Twitter employee with muscular dystrophy who had been laid off after asking for a reasonable accommodation.
After nine days of getting no response from HR, the employee, Heraldur (aka Halli) Thorleifsson, tweeted to Musk directly, and without understanding the situation, Musk proceeded to belittle him and criticize his work.
It later turned out that Thorleifsson had sold a company to Twitter and his contract was structured in such a way that Twitter would have to pay him $100 million upon the termination of his contract. Musk had to backpedal in a hurry, but he couldn’t even do that without blaming others who apparently gave him “untrue” information.
The Twitter-verse was almost unanimously annoyed by Musk’s antics. If you are wasting time on Twitter every hour like Musk and need some entertainment, you might check out the 6,000 responses to Musk’s faux apology. I was able to find two tweets from people who thought the apology was sufficient.
Musk was not pleased with the acrimonious responses to what he seemed to think was a good apology, so he chimed in with passive-aggressive tweets as the destruction of his already battered reputation ground on.
A week before that, China threatened Musk not to “bite the hand that feeds you” by sharing the COVID lab leak story.
But of course, Elon Musk is a free-speech absolutist, so he wouldn’t let the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) silence him so easily… After all, The CCP is the boogy man who Donald Trump and Steve Bannon love to bash. For sure, the great Elon Musk would stick to his guns.
Oh, wait, (checks Elon’s tweets), yeah, the CCP completely silenced him, for which Steve Bannon proceeded to bash him as “owned by the CCP.”
Musk’s “Mad Men” Management and the MBA
Musk’s management style harkens back to the Mad Men days when executives went on boozy lunches and propositioned their female colleagues. In many ways, Musk’s companies seem to operate mostly according to the rules of a bygone era, as Jose Moran said.
Musk seems to get his jollies from cruelty. He tortures his team with his “hardcore” work culture, which he embodies. After all, he works at all hours of the day and night, has 25 kids, and still has time to tweet every hour of the day.
His staff lives in fear of his legendary late-night emails and his off-the-cuff promises made in front of press microphones.
“No one believed me that working for Elon was the way it was until they saw how he operated Twitter,” former Tesla test operator John Bernal told the Washington Post, calling Twitter “just the tip of the iceberg on how he operates Tesla.”
It isn’t Musk’s fault that the union movement has been decimated in the last half-century, but he is reinforcing the losses in a powerful way, by sending hired thugs like a good ol’ Midwestern coal baron to harass employees who want nothing more than not to die on the factory floor.
Ruling the roost at Twitter has enabled Musk to shadowban the fledgling Tesla union’s Twitter account, which makes suppressing Constitutional rights even more cost-effective than sending thugs to threaten union organizers.
Labor rights battles won 100 years ago are being refought in American courts because so much territory has been lost. In this way, Tesla’s treatment of its employees does not diverge so much from the current norms of corporate America.
If Musk’s cruel and reckless dismantling of Twitter proves successful, then, according to the Economist, current management paradigms may need to be re-examined and business schools will need to update their MBA programs.
What?! Balderdash! That’s like saying if an enterprise owned by the mob is able to outcompete other law-abiding businesses, those other businesses should break the law, as well.
Musk violated the rights of Twitter staff, as he has done at SpaceX and Tesla. He’s a lot of things, but a management guru, he is not. As his ego has spiraled into space with his rockets, and our hopes for humanity with them, no one can deny that his leadership has been in a race to rock bottom.
Should we admire his accomplishments? Not more than we admire those of 19th century Robber Barons. And nobody should be teaching his illegal, unethical, and disgusting tactics in business school or anywhere else.
Author: Tim Tolka, writer, journalist, and BI researcher
The editorial team at #DisruptionBanking has taken all precautions to ensure that no persons or organizations have been adversely affected or offered any sort of financial advice in this article. This article is most definitely not financial advice.