(Bloomberg) — Wednesday Tesla Inc. fired dozens of employees at its plant in Buffalo, New York, a day after Autopilot workers announced the start of a union campaign, organizers said in a complaint.
In a filing with the US National Labor Relations Board, Workers United accused Tesla of illegally firing employees “in retaliation for union activity and to obstruct union activity.” The union has asked the labor board to seek a federal court injunction “to prevent irreparable violation of workers’ rights as a result of Tesla’s unlawful conduct.”
According to the union, several fired employees participated in labor discussions, including at least one of them was a member of the organizing committee.
“This is a form of collective retribution against the group of workers who started this organizing work,” said Jaz Brisak, a Workers United organizer who is helping lead the Tesla union movement. The layoffs are “intended to scare everyone with the potential consequences of their organization and also to try to destroy the herd,” she said.
In a blog post late Thursday Thursday, Tesla denied it was acting in response to the union campaign and said the decision to terminate was made earlier this month as part of a routine performance review process. The company said it has 675 employees tagging data for the Tesla Autopilot system in Buffalo, and that 4% of those laid off “received early feedback about their poor performance from their managers.”
Read more: Tesla Autopilot workers launch union campaign in New York
The organizing committee of 25 employees sent an email to CEO Elon Musk early Tuesday morning with the intention of unionizing.
Among those fired was Arian Berek, one of the organizers, according to a statement from the union.
“I feel overwhelmed,” she said in a statement provided by the union. “I got COVID and was out of the office, then I had to take a leave of absence due to bereavement. I went back to work, they told me I had exceeded all expectations, and then Wednesday came around.”
According to the union, Autopilot analysts are non-engineered roles that contribute to the development of Tesla’s automated driving, including by identifying objects in images that capture its cars and helping its systems recognize them on the road.
Last year, the company laid off hundreds of workers doing these jobs in California, Bloomberg reported in June.
In addition to job security and pay increases, employees have said they want to have a say in workplace decision-making and want to curb the monitoring, performance and workplace pressures they claim are bad for their health. They say that Tesla tracks keystrokes and keeps track of how much time they spend on a task and how much time per day they are actively working. This results in some of them avoiding bathroom breaks, several employees previously reported to Bloomberg News.
In a blog post Thursday, Tesla said it was using time monitoring to label images “to make our labeling software easier to use” and that “postponing bathroom trips won’t do anything.”
On Wednesday, a day after Bloomberg News quoted several Tesla employees discussing their concerns in the workplace, the company also sent a message to employees announcing new sections of its policy on the use of technology in the workplace. The changes included a directive to “Protect the confidentiality, integrity, and security of all Tesla business information,” according to a copy viewed by Bloomberg News.
Last year, Workers United successfully launched hundreds of Starbucks Corp. stores, achieving a landmark victory at the Buffalo Cafe, six miles from the Tesla plant.
The union said it also aims to organize around 1,000 production workers at the plant. On Tuesday, Tesla workers distributed leaflets at the plant to both groups of employees with links to a website where they could sign union tickets.
Sarah Costantino, an Autopilot employee and organizing committee member, said Wednesday’s layoffs encourage more workers to support the union’s efforts. “It’s pretty clear what they’re sending. They are trying to scare us,” Constantino said. “And I really think it backfires on them.”
“It really opened people’s eyes to the fact that that’s why we need a union,” she said.
Read more: Tesla illegally ordered employees not to discuss salaries, US labor board claims
Federal law prohibits retaliation against workers for collective action over workplace conditions, including through unionization. Complaints filed with the NLRB are investigated by the regional offices. If labor board officials find the allegations valid and the company does not settle, they file a grievance with an agency judge, whose decision can be appealed to members of the board of directors in Washington, and from there to a federal appeals court. The agency has the right to order the reinstatement of laid-off workers with wage arrears, but not to force companies to pay penalties.
In 2021, a bipartisan panel of US labor council members ruled that Tesla repeatedly violated federal law in Fremont, including by “forced questioning” union supporters and firing one of them because of his activism. Tesla denies wrongdoing and is appealing the decision.
(Updated with Tesla’s comments from the fifth paragraph)
–With assistance from Dana Hull.