Proposed Tesla union: Labor trends nationwide – and in Buffalo – give workers a shot, University at Buffalo labor expert says

The union would be a first for the Elon Musk-owned company, says sociologist Erin Hatton

Release Date: February 15, 2023

Erin Hatton.

Erin Hatton

“Second, waves of unionization efforts have recently swept the U.S., including the Starbucks wave that started in Buffalo. These dynamics combined lay a strong foundation for union organizing at Tesla in Buffalo. ”
Erin Hatton, professor of sociology
University at Buffalo College of Arts and Sciences

BUFFALO, N.Y. – On Tuesday, workers at the Tesla Inc. factory in Buffalo announced a unionization campaign. If successful, this would be the first Tesla facility with a union, as the manufacturer and its owner, Elon Musk, have successfully fought previous efforts.

Erin Hatton, PhD, professor of sociology in the University at Buffalo College of Arts and Sciences, is an expert on labor movements.

She believes that national and local trends lay a promising foundation for the workers, who are organizing under Tesla Workers United. The group is receiving aid from Service Employees International Union affiliate Workers United, which jumpstarted unionization efforts at Starbucks in Buffalo in 2021. Still, establishing a union at Tesla will be a difficult process due to the company’s anti-union stance and U.S. labor laws that tilt toward companies, she says.

Below, Hatton discusses the proposed Tesla union, U.S. labor laws and more.

It’s been five years since the first unionization effort at Tesla. How might this newest attempt be different?

Hatton: I think there are several things that have changed the Tesla/union landscape over the past five years. First, Tesla’s project in Buffalo — once full of promise — has been sullied by controversy, severe problems, and unkept promises. Second, waves of unionization efforts have recently swept the U.S., including the Starbucks wave that started in Buffalo. These dynamics combined lay a strong foundation for union organizing at Tesla in Buffalo.

When you have strongly anti-union companies, how does that affect workers trying to organize?

Hatton: I think companies’ anti-union stance can both pull workers away from and push workers towards unions. On the one hand, it can be a severe disincentive to organize because workers know that they will face an uphill battle all the way. Organizing is a lot of work, and all the more so when they have to fight tooth and nail at every turn (which might include strikes or lockouts in which they would lose much needed wages). They likely also worry about the repercussions they will face. Even though such repercussions are illegal — organizing is a “protected activity” and so companies cannot punish workers in any way for trying to organize a union — they happen all the time. Workers are routinely fired under false pretenses for their organizing efforts. On the other hand, companies’ anti-union animus may also galvanize workers. If the leadership of a company is strongly anti-union, that conveys to workers just how much the boss has to lose (and how much workers have to gain) by organizing one.

There have been recent successful unionization attempts at companies, such as Amazon and Starbucks. But many of these attempts do not succeed. Why?

Hatton: Unionization is extremely challenging in this country because of U.S. labor laws, which give employers a great deal of power over this process. For instance, they can hold ‘captive audience’ meetings with employees to talk about their views about unions, but union organizers are not allowed on company property, which makes organizing very difficult. So, it’s not necessarily the union efforts that fell short in some cases. In fact, because of the severe imbalance in labor law, I would usually expect most union efforts to fail. The odds are so great. What is surprising is the number of unions that have succeeded, as well as the number of new groups of workers who are trying to organize against the odds. 


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