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Workers who help Teslas become robots explore starting a union to avoid same fate

Elon Musk has already said he likes the idea of less human input into the data labelling process these folks drive

A group of workers employed to label data at Tesla's Autopilot division in Buffalo, New York, launched a campaign to form an official union on Tuesday.

Under US law, unions can bargain with employers only if the group is certified by the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB). Union groups must obtain signatures from at least 30 percent of the workforce in order for the NLRB to conduct an union election. 

A team working at the Tesla plant in Buffalo, backed by the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) affiliate Workers United, is working to collect enough signatures from colleagues.

The first salvo was distributing leaflets containing a Valentine's Day poem that read: "Roses are red/violets are blue/forming a union starts with you." The leaflet also contained a link to a website where employees can sign up in support of a union election. They also sent an email to CEO Elon Musk letting him know they were attempting to unionize, according to Bloomberg.  

The aspiring unionists label data in images captured by cameras recording driving sessions logged by Tesla vehicles, flagging objects to help train the EV-maker's Autopilot software. They are fighting for better pay and job security, and want to feel less pressure to work faster. Tesla reportedly pays them from $19 an hour, and logs their keystrokes to monitor productivity and output.

On a 2021 earnings call, Musk said he wanted to automate the labelling process so humans only needed to confirm or edit the machine's outputs.

"People are tired of being treated like robots," said Al Celli, a Tesla worker organizing attempts to unionize. "We have such a rush to get things done that I don't know if it's actually being well thought out … It's just, 'Let's get this out as fast as we can'," Celli added. 

Workers at the Buffalo plant said they began organizing last year after the managers at Tesla shut down an internal channel where employees had complained about work. Over 1,600 employees work at the factory with about half of them labelling data, according to CBS News. 

Union organizing against big tech companies has increased over the past few years, with groups successfully forming at an Amazon fufilment center in Staten Island, New York City, and at Apple retail stores in Towson, Maryland and Glasgow, UK. 

Previous attempts by Tesla workers to unionize have fallen flat. Employees represented by the United Auto Workers and the United Steelworkers and the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers in Fremont, California and Buffalo, New York respectively failed to petition for an union vote in 2017 and 2018. If the latest attempt from the SEIU is successful, it would be the first-ever union formed at Tesla. 

Officials at the NLRB previously ruled that Tesla had violated labor laws by unfairly discouraging workers to unionize. The company was accused of coercively interrogating staff, and fired one employee for speaking out. Tesla has appealed the ruling. 

The Register has asked Workers United for comment. Tesla, on the other hand, does not have a public relations team to contact. ®

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