Tesla vehicles at charging stations at a dealership in Rocklin, California, U.S., on Friday, January 21, 2022.
David Paul Morris | Bloomberg | Getty Images
Dozens of employees of a Tesla factory in upstate New York have been fired just days after launching a union campaign, organizers said Thursday.
In a complaint to the National Labor Relations Board, Workers United said Tesla fired more than 30 workers from its Autopilot unit at a plant in Buffalo in retaliation and to discourage union activity. The union asked the NLRB for an injunction “to prevent irreparable destruction of employee rights as a result of Tesla’s illegal conduct.”
Workers at the Buffalo facility on Tuesday began organizing efforts within the Tesla Workers United union. Workers said they were seeking a voice in the workplace, along with better pay and job security.
Employees are tasked with captioning videos from the company’s cars to improve Tesla’s driver assistance systems, marketed as Autopilot or fully self-driving.
Typical data annotation work at Tesla involves identifying and describing objects in short clips captured by cameras and sensors on Tesla’s electric vehicles. Tagging data sometimes needs to identify overlapping objects, such as a bike in front of a curb or a pedestrian blocking the full view of a stop sign. They also look at footage of accidents.
The performance of data annotation specialists is tracked at a granular level. They are judged on how many clips they can accurately annotate in short periods of time.
Last year, Tesla laid off more than 200 employees who did this type of work at an Autopilot office in San Mateo, California. Hiring these kinds of workers in Buffalo helped the company avoid paying a penalty to New York State and fulfill a commitment to create high-tech jobs there.
Workers received an email Wednesday night outlining a new policy that prohibits them from recording workplace meetings without the permission of all participants, Tesla Workers United said in a statement Thursday. The group said the policy violates federal labor law and ignores New York’s unilateral consent to call recording law.
“We’re angry. It’s not going to slow us down. It’s not going to stop us,” Sara Costantino, a Tesla employee and member of the union’s organizing committee, said in a statement. “They want to scare us, but I think they just started a stampede.”
Tesla and CEO Elon Musk have been at odds with union supporters for years. In 2017, Tesla fired a union activist named Richard Ortiz, and in 2018, Musk posted a comment on Twitter that was found to violate federal labor laws. The NLRB ordered Tesla to reinstate Ortiz and force Musk to delete his tweet, which it said threatened workers’ compensation. Tesla is appealing the administrative court’s decision, and its tweet stands.
After hours Thursday, Tesla responded to the Buffalo workers’ complaint with a company blog post titled “In response to false claims.” The recent layoffs at the Autopilot team, Tesla said, amount to about 4 percent of employees in that group and are part of a performance review-related layoff being made at the company starting the week of Feb. 12.
Tesla said it determined which employees it would lay off on Feb. 3, which the company said was before the union campaign was announced. Tesla also wrote that Autopilot’s data labeling team in Buffalo has grown over the past six months from 437 employees to about 675 employees as of the start of this week.
Read Tesla’s full response here.
WATCHING: Tesla hired a PR firm to monitor employees on social media amid union pressure