A production worker at the Tesla plant in Fremont wrote a blog post imploring CEO Elon Musk to improve the working conditions there. (Courtesy photo)

Silicon Valley and big labor look to fight it out at Tesla’s Fremont plant

Elon Musk is a dreamer. Whether it be sending rockets into orbit, creating an electric car empire or digging a tunnel in Los Angeles because he’s bored (not making it up), Musk is possibly the most imaginative man in Silicon Valley.

But even Musk’s visionary plans couldn’t conjure how to keep his workers happy. On Feb. 9, a Tesla production employee named Jose Moran wrote a blog post detailing dangerous working conditions, overworked employees and strict confidentiality policies at the electric car manufacturing plant in Fremont. He implored Musk to “become a champion for his employees” by improving the working conditions and retracting the confidentiality policies.

But it seems Musk was almost blinded by Moran’s one-paragraph claim that Tesla employees have been trying to unionize. In his first remarks about Moran’s plea, Musk discredited him, saying that Moran was paid by the United Auto Workers (UAW) union to agitate workers for a union in the plant. “Frankly, I find this attack to be morally outrageous,” Musk said to Gizmodo about Moran.

Despite repeatedly refuting claims they paid Moran or any other Tesla workers to organize, the UAW said they contacted Tesla workers and sent organizers to support them. Regardless of their involvement, the workers themselves will determine unionization.

The fight for unionization in Fremont is shaping up quickly — and with it, a new chapter of labor in a predominantly anti-labor Silicon Valley. The unionization, if it succeeds, will be an affront to Silicon Valley’s core ideals and startup culture, where total employee commitment is seen as a keystone trait in building the next Facebook or Tesla. Musk still sees — or wants to see — Tesla as a startup; it’s no wonder that Musk once said his employees were “the equivalent of Special Forces” within the automobile industry.

Contrast that with the philosophies of labor unions, which were once a socioeconomic foundation of a manufacturing America decades ago. Through its sheer volume of workers and its ability to go on grinding strikes, it squeezed from employers better pay and working conditions. With this context, labor unions and tech companies seem like matter and anti-matter, almost destined to be attracted to each other in a collision.

Since the creation of Silicon Valley, union efforts have persisted but is limited to service jobs that were being exploited through sheer lack of pay. Local labor groups like Silicon Valley Rising focus primarily on low-wage janitors, security guards and landscapers, not middle-class factory workers. Even Moran’s demands for a higher wage — between $25 to $28 per hour — are substantially less than what engineers who code make in Silicon Valley.

Caught in middle-class purgatory, between Big Labor and Silicon Valley, Tesla workers in Fremont are in a unique position in the large scale of labor struggles in America — but probably not to their benefit. Its boss is the one of the most futuristic-thinking men in America who believes automation will take over manufacturing soon. There’s little to no chance he sees human production workers in his tech empire in the long-term.

And if necessary, Musk can bring in the PR firepower against the UAW. The United States remains tepid about unions, with 56 percent approving unions and 36 percent disapproving in a 2016 Gallup poll. In contrast, Musk is largely adored as a 21st-century visionary across e America, whose wanton desire to dig a tunnel recently was adorned as the cover story for Bloomberg Businessweek magazine.

Don’t believe the Elon Musk hype? Just ask the worker who has been the newest thorn on his side.

“I was attracted to the company because of their mission,” Moran told The Outline after being labeled as an agitator. “Elon Musk is a visionary. He’s a genius.”

***

Last week, I wrote that Facebook is a political company as much as it is a media company or tech company. Luckily for me, Mark Zuckerberg penned a 6,000-word manifesto on Thursday outlining Facebook’s new vision of being more inclusive, more engaging and more well-informed than ever before. The letter reads more like a State of the Union speech than a CEO briefing its employees on new company goals.

Putting aside the ridiculous Valley gossip about whether Zuckerberg is running for president, there was a state-building quality about the letter. Zuckerberg touts a quasi-police force to crack down on fake news and catch terrorists and civic institutions to encourage voting and engaging in democratic norms.

I can’t help but quote a tweet from John Herrman, a New York Times reporter who’s been covering the intersection of media, tech and society far longer than I have: “This is wild and I can’t help but see the words ‘THE PLATFORM IS THE NEW STATE’ flashing between every paragraph.”

I feel we are just 20 years away from an Alexandre de Tocqueville-esque book about the newfound United States of Facebook.

The Nexus covers the intersection of technology, business and culture in San Francisco and beyond. Write to Seung at seungylee14@gmail.com.

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