BUFFALO, N.Y. — Not all of the facts are clear at this point, but a day after Tesla employees at the factory in South Buffalo declared intentions to try and organize a union, the company fired employees.
The two sides are disputing even the number of employees let go, with union organizers saying it was 40 and the company claiming 27.
"They're trying to convey to the public the facts as they see them and put their own spin on the story, but the facts will emerge from the [National Labor Relations Board] investigation," University at Buffalo sociology professor Erin Hatton said.
Tesla Workers United has filed a complaint with the NLRB. Hatton, who specializes in the field of work and labor, said the board is in the process of a fact-finding mission in which it interviews employees and managers to determine what happened.
"We don't know if it's out-and-out retribution,” she said. “Time will tell though. The workers have filed an unfair labor practice, charging that this is illegal retribution, so what will ensue is an investigation from the National Labor Relations Board to determine whether this is illegal.”
Hatton said the timing is suspicious. Tesla claims the allegations are false, that it conducts performance review cycles globally every six months and impacted employees were identified well before the campaign was announced.
"Intent is very, very difficult to prove," she said. "That's why these illegal firings happen all the time because it's actually quite easy for an employer to say, ‘oh look, this was already planned. Oh look, these employees had violated one of our code of conduct or one of our rules.’"
The Tesla factory in Buffalo is subsidized by New York state. Empire State Development is in the process of auditing the company's latest report, but as of December 2022, it has claimed to have easily exceeded benchmarks of 2,000 jobs it needed to create in the state, with 1,460 in Buffalo.
"I think public perception will definitely play a role in whether they stop being so highly subsidized," Hatton said.
The governor's office said it supports labor movements, expects all companies to follow federal and state employment laws and the office is closely monitoring the situation. Hatton said the NLRB is required and expected to conduct unbiased reviews; however, politically, Musk's history of anti-union statements and actions as well as his controversial public persona could likely draw more scrutiny on the company.
She said if the board finds misconduct, Tesla would have to rehire the employees and likely post signage about labor rules in the facility.