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Tesla fires gigafactory staff after someone made the mistake of mentioning unions

From organizing plans to filing a watchdog complaint in just a day - that's gotta be some sort of record

Tesla has reportedly fired employees at its Buffalo, NY, gigafactory just a day after workers announced plans to unionize.

In a complaint filed with America's National Labor Relations Board and viewed by The Register, representatives from the Rochester regional Workers United joint board named 18 employees they say were terminated from the Autopilot department at the gigafactory "in retaliation for union activity and to discourage union activity." 

Workers United, a subsidiary of the Service Employees International Union, announced plans to form a chapter at the Buffalo gigafactory on Valentine's Day. Those forming the group consisted of Autopilot data labelers working on the company's driving assist software. 

According to Bloomberg, the organizing committee for the union consisted of 25 people - less than the total number named in the NLRB complaint. In order for a union vote in the US to be successful over 50 percent need to agree for a union to be formed. 

Workers on the labeling team make up around half of the staff at the (according to the NLRB complaint) 2,000-person facility. Musk has previously stated he wanted to automate the data labeling process so that humans only had to confirm outputs - a good way to reduce some of the salary budget. 

Labelers at Tesla have reported feeling pressured to work faster, and are allegedly monitored while on the clock via keylogging software and other means. "The expectations required of us are unfair, unattainable, ambiguous and ever-changing," Tesla Workers United said in a statement.

The Buffalo workers were reportedly pushed to unionize after Tesla shut down an internal channel that employees used to complain about their jobs. 

Caught up in the firings was Tesla data labeler and member of the Tesla Workers United organizing committee, Arian Berek. Berek's work was recently described as "exceeding expectations and then Wednesday came along. I strongly feel this is in retaliation to the committee announcement and it's shameful," Berek said in a statement provided by Tesla Workers United. 

Sara Costantino, a Tesla employee and member of the organizing committee who wasn't fired in yesterday's culling, believes the group still has momentum despite losing dozens of potential votes. 

"We're angry. This won't slow us down. This won't stop us. They want us to be scared, but I think they just started a stampede," Constantino said. 

The union said in its statement that remaining Tesla employees received an email at 1900 on the day of the firings, informing them of a new policy prohibiting the recording of workplace meetings without all participants' consent. 

"This policy violates federal labor law and also flouts New York's one-party consent law to record conversations," Tesla Workers United said. 

The union asked in its complaint for injunctive relief under section 10(j) of the National Labor Relations Act, which would restore the employee's status before the labor violation occurred while allowing the NLRB time to investigate. 

Under the National Labor Relations Act, it is illegal for employers to discourage employees from participating in union activity.

Timing could be everything

The NLRB has already found Tesla guilty once before of suppressing union activity, and the company has also been accused of improperly terminating employees. Suffice it to say, it's not beyond the realm of possibility that Tesla's guilty of these allegations as well. 

It could be the case that Tesla had planned layoffs among the Buffalo Autopilot labeling team prior to yesterday's announcement, but we couldn't reach anyone at the company for comment, as Tesla has no media team and its PR mailbox is full.

Absent any explanation from Elon Musk or his car company, it's unclear if the email prohibiting meeting recordings was intended to retroactively excuse the firings, or precisely how the tight timeline between the union announcement and the firings can be explained. . 

A quick look around for information online related to "retaliation" and "timing" turns back plenty of evidence, including the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission's own words, that "suspicious timing" is often a key factor in weighing claims like those from the fired Tesla workers. 

Tesla had better have something up its sleeve, because it's hard to think of timing that could be much more suspicious. ®

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