By Shaun Richman, unionist.com
The United Auto Workers union (UAW) slapped billionaire gadfly Elon Musk with charges of violating federal labor law in a stupid tweet last week. Musk owns the unprofitable luxury electric car manufacturer Tesla Motors, which the UAW has been unsuccessfully trying to organize.
Tesla has previously been scrutinized over allegations of “excessive mandatory overtime,” a lack of workplace safety and union busting. Musk’s tweet suggesting that Tesla workers would lose their stock options in the company if they voted for union representation raised eyebrow and prompted the UAW to file an Unfair Labor Practice Charge over the retaliatory threat. Speaking to Bloomberg news, former NLRB chair Wilma Liebman said, “If you threaten to take away benefits because people unionize, that’s an out-and-out violation of the labor law.”
The dumb tweet was fired off in the middle of a surreal “It’s 2018 and, yes, this is actually happening” social media meltdown that was sparked the revelation that the 46-year-old capitalist mogul who looks like his name sounds has been secretly dating the pop star Grimes.
Somehow this led to Grimes tweeting a defense of Tesla’s union busting. (As writer Brandy Jensen quipped in a tweet of her own: on a scale of “said you liked his band” to “publicly defended his union busting” what’s the most embarrassing thing you’ve done for a boyfriend) In the resulting Twitter conversation from Hell, Musk – who, again, is a billionaire and has nearly 30 million followers on the platform – responded to the gentle chiding of someone with .00004% of his social media reach with this gratuitous gem:
"Nothing stopping Tesla team at our car plant from voting union. Could do so tmrw if they wanted. But why pay union dues & give up stock options for nothing? Our safety record is 2X better than when plant was UAW & everybody already gets healthcare" -Elon Musk (@elonmusk) May 21, 2018
Musk’s online meltdown has also included attacks on the credibility of the press, along with a threat to create some sort of Rotten Tomatoes-style website to rate the truthiness of various media outlets. Hilariously, he wanted to name it Pravda – Russian for “truth” – after the infamous Soviet newspaper. After his “grand” announcement Musk found out that the domain name was taken because Pravda still publishes and they’d like to keep their name, thank you very much.
As of this writing, Musk’s latest train wreck is a tweet suggesting that the real problem with the media is, and I quote, “Who do you think *owns* the press? Hello.” (The belief that the media is owned and controlled by a Jewish conspiracy is an anti-Semitic trope that won’t die, and Musk’s tweet was celebrated by hundreds – if not thousands – of literal Nazis who joined the thread from Hell because it’s 2018 and this sort of thing happens now.)
Not only was Musk’s anti-union tweet arrogant and gratuitous, it was the dumbest, clumsiest technical violation of labor law that every dipshit front-line supervisor makes before the professional union-busters get in there and teach them proper Newspeak.
For Elon Musk’s benefit – and everyone’s– here’s how union negotiations actually work.
The moment that workers form a bargaining unit and successfully vote for union representation, a status quo of pay, benefits and working conditions sets in. This is regardless of whether the union was formed through an election certified by the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) or through voluntary card check recognition by the employer.
That’s because the only thing that unionizing workers win on Day One is a seat at the bargaining table. The employer is legally compelled to negotiate “in good faith” over the union’s (that is, the workers’) demands for the changes they’d like to see at work. Likewise, the employer must negotiate with the union over any changes it wants to make. In fact, there’s some case law at the NLRB that the status quo sets in as soon as a union organizing drive goes public and a union demands recognition as the representative of the workers.
So, nothing “goes away” when workers form a union. There’s nothing automatic about the changes to the benefits package or work rules. Both sides must negotiate them all.
Now ask yourself, if there was a benefit that employees enjoy – like, say, stock options – how would they even wind up on the table, much less surrendered or bargained away? What group of democratically elected representatives is going to suggest getting rid of a popular benefit?
Popular items wind up on the chopping block because vindictive employers put them there. It is very common for employers to carry over their union busting campaign into negotiations for a first contract. So the boss comes into bargaining with a laundry list of benefits to be pruned, new surveillance and drug tests that need to be instituted and all kinds of “flexibility” around pay and scheduling that he needs to stave off those suddenly-pending layoffs.
And that’s why Elon Musk’s tweet is illegal. He’s not predicting the future, or explaining the UAW’s “Big 3” contracts. He’s telling his workers, “Hey, you can form a union but I’ll be damned if I keep giving you ungrateful S.O.B.s an ownership stake in the company.”
It was an unmistakable threat.
Now, do popular benefits and work rules get traded away in bargaining? Sure, it happens. But here’s the thing: in order for a contract to get signed and be in effect it must be ratified by the workers who are subject to its terms. When a union member is voting on whether to accept a deal or not, she is weighing the entire package. Do the wage increases and new health insurance with lower co-pays outweigh the fact that, for example, the nurses now have to pay the same parking fee as the cafeteria workers, or that the kitchen staff can no longer haul off with a case of beer each week, no questions asked? And, is the entire package worth the cost of the union dues members will soon be paying?
If the answer is no, it’s hard to imagine how a majority of workers would vote to approve such a deal. This is not abstract hair-splitting. Half of all bargaining units that vote in favor of unionization wind up with no contract and ultimately no union rights.
Forming a union is a process of bringing some much-needed democracy into the workplace. Workers have real and meaningful control over what they’re demanding and how they go about trying to win it. Without a union a workplace is a literal dictatorship; the boss dictates all of the work rules, pay and benefits. With Tesla’s stock options for its employees, Elon Musk can try to convince himself that he is a benevolent dictator. But let’s all be as clear as Musk himself is about his power over his workers. Musk fights the UAW in ways both sophisticated and clumsy because he wants to retain his dictatorial powers over his company and its workers.