HARD LABOR

Unpacking Elon Musk’s daylong Twitter rant on unions and US history

A few things to get off my chest.
A few things to get off my chest.
Image: AP Photo/John Raoux
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Elon Musk had a busy morning fixing Tesla’s Model 3 braking issue and sparring with the Twitterverse today (May 22). A provocative tweet can send Musk off on a tangent. This week was no exception.

One of Musk’s tweets showing off the SpaceX crew capsule in a vacuum chamber led, somehow, two days later, to the Tesla CEO invoking the American Revolution in taking on critics portraying his company as intent on crushing workers’ rights. Let’s unpack this thread a bit.

The United Automobile Workers union wants “divisiveness & enforcement of 2 class ‘lords & commoners’ system. That sucks.”

Musk has been in an ongoing battle over unionization at Tesla’s 10,000-worker Fremont, California factory. Employees have been unable to muster enough signatures to unionize the plant (once operated jointly by General Motors and Toyota), and a few workers have lodged complaints about intimidation and safety. An April investigation by Reveal, part of the Center for Investigative Reporting, alleged that Tesla had failed to report serious injuries as required by law. Tesla is scheduled to appear at a National Labor Relations Board hearing next month on a UAW complaint alleging union supporters were threatened.

Musk has insisted Tesla goes above and beyond to ensure its workers are protected, citing safety numbers above industry standards, and aims to be the “safest factory on Earth,” according to an April 16 company blog post. Tesla portrayed the claims made in the Reveal report as “old, misrepresentative and outright inaccurate information.”

Musk has implored workers not to join the UAW, “which does not share our mission.”

“The forces arrayed against us are many and incredibly powerful,” Musk wrote. “This is David vs Goliath if David were six inches tall! Only by being smarter, faster and working well as a tightly integrated team do we have any chance of success.”

Musk again pulled no punches today. “They drove GM & Chrysler to bankruptcy & lost 200,000+ jobs for people they were supposed to protect, incl abandoning NUMMI plant workers [the previous joint venture between Toyota and GM],” he wrote on Twitter. “Tesla took over & now it has 10k+ jobs.UAW destroyed once great US auto industry & everyone knows it.”

Ray Goforth, executive director of the SPEEA  aerospace labor union, called this a “gross oversimplification.”

But Musk issued a challenge to those calling for unionization. “But ya know what, let’s test that theory,” he wrote. “Maybe we do want UAW back, even tho UAW betrayed us 8 years ago & left us here to rot. Maybe we want UAW back even tho injury rate today is 1/2 what it was with them & wages were lower. Maybe. Let’s hold a vote & find out.”

“US fought War of Independence to get *rid* of a 2 class system!”

Not really. The US fought the War of Independence primarily to reclaim rights, freedoms and economic control from the British crown. Forty years of mounting taxes, trade barriers, and curtailed freedoms finally led the colonists to write the Declaration of Independence. The 1776 document, addressed to King George III, conveniently lays out Americans’ reasons for throwing off the monarchy. While the revolutionists generally were fiercely opposed to an aristocratic system, none of their listed grievances involved ridding the colonies of a “2 class system.”

“Managers & workers shd be equal w easy movement either way”

This sounds ideal. Perhaps Musk is referring to the German system of “Soziale Partner,” or “social partners.” The Harvard Business Review describes this unique arrangement as one in which labor is considered “a full participant in economic and political life.” The system includes both full unions, powerful forces in German life, and “works councils,” worker groups protected by law at any company with five or more employees. Management must consult with councils to restructure jobs or work schedules, as well as negotiate with them on hiring and firing. One political scientist called this system “a remarkable machine for producing consensus.

Or perhaps Musk is thinking more of the “flat” hierarchies common in Silicon Valley, in which the CEO sits amid the rank and file, and employees are given more direct access to executives.

In either case, Tesla retains a fairly conventional functional corporate structure. If anything, it’s consolidating into one with fewer managers (or Musk taking over their jobs entirely), based on a recent letter to employees. As a bonus, Musk is back to sleeping on the couch at the Fremont factory as it works out its Model 3 manufacturing difficulties.

“Managing sucks btw. Hate doing it so much.”

Really no argument from the Quartz newsroom on this one. Hard agree.