Issue 2: Who calls the shots?

15 May 2020

Who calls the shots at Tesla Motors? Is it the workers who collectively build all the products that generate the company’s wealth? No, it’s the company’s multi-billionaire CEO, who recently threw a fit on Twitter over COVID-19 shelter-in-place orders that would delay resuming production. How does he manage to get away with that?

Screenshot of a tweet sent by Elon Musk announcing the re-opening of a Tesla factory, contra local safety regulations

Elon Musk acting as if he's some sort of civil rights hero for defying regulations meant to keep workers safe / Source

Tesla CEO Elon Musk has done a great job of framing his decision to resume production as if it were a noble act on behalf of his workers. But leaked emails from management show that Tesla workers are being intimidated to return to work with the claim that they may be ineligible for unemployment benefits if they do not return to work. This isn’t Musk taking a heroic stand to save his workers; it’s a means of exercising the power that he holds over his workers during a global pandemic, so that they can keep making him money even if it puts their lives at risk.

We’ve been here before. Jose Moran, a Tesla quality inspector at the plant in Fremont, California, saw coworkers put in 60-70 hours each week and get injured on the job. In 2016, he reached out to the United Auto Workers for help, and in 2017 he wrote an open letter: “Most Tesla production workers earn between $17 and $21 hourly. The average auto worker in the nation earns $25.58 an hour, and lives in a much less expensive region.” Unfortunately, within two years, the unionizing campaign had failed. A ruling by the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) indicated that Tesla had illegally sabotaged organizing efforts by falsely alleging that a union would render workers voiceless.

Last week, Musk tweeted that he would be “on the line with everyone”, as if a CEO were at the same level as rank-and-file workers. But there is a tangible difference: while he has power over their labor, they do not have power over his. Musk can choose to re-open the Fremont factory against local regulations, even if it puts workers’ health at risk, because our socioeconomic system has granted him power over their lives. And if Musk decides to relocate the factory to a different state, as he has threatened on Twitter, as a means of attaining concessions from politicians — that’s his prerogative, even if it means Californian workers will lose their jobs. Capital always calls the shots, and workers are always left picking up the pieces.

Yet Musk cannot run the assembly line without the workers. The Musks of the world may get all the credit, but the wealth they’ve managed to hoard is created through the hard work of countless working people who will never become billionaires — even if they got paid $1,100 per hour and worked 24 hours every day for 100 years. (This wealth inequality visualization helps illustrate just how much money a billion dollars is.)

Does it have to be this way? What if decisions about production were made by those directly affected, rather than billionaire executives who hardly have their workers’ best interests at heart? How could we restructure society such that ordinary people could have more power over their own lives?

In these dark times, it’s more important than ever to envision a brighter world than the one outside our windows. It may feel difficult to even imagine such a world, because it’s such a far cry from what we have now, but we have to try. We stand in solidarity with workers at Tesla and beyond who are organizing for their rights, and we hope that their efforts will, slowly but surely, shape our world into something better.

In The News

Layoffs continue throughout the industry — according to the layoffs tracker, there have been nearly 50,000 layoffs in the tech sector since March 11. During a Zoom call this week, Uber laid off 3,500 employees (14% of its office workers) and Airbnb laid off 25% of its employees, following Lyft, Yelp, and dozens more. As workers, we bear the brunt of the consequences of this global pandemic while shareholders and executive salaries are prioritized over our well-being. However, from the front-lines to remote offices, workers have strength in numbers. As the Kickstarter United union showed us, when we organize, we win.

Tim Bray, former VP and software engineer at Amazon Web Services, quit his job earlier this month in protest of Amazon’s treatment of warehouse workers who have been organizing during the pandemic around the world. In his blog post about the resignation, he writes: “remaining an Amazon VP would have meant, in effect, signing off on actions I despised. So I resigned.” We applaud Tim for his resolve, and we stand in solidarity with the workers at Amazon who are organizing against the company at all levels. As Tim says, “Amazon is exceptionally well-managed and has demonstrated great skill at spotting opportunities and building repeatable processes for exploiting them. It has a corresponding lack of vision about the human costs of the relentless growth and accumulation of wealth and power.”

California is suing Uber and Lyft for misclassifying drivers as independent contractors rather than employees under AB-5, a new state law that took effect on January 1, 2020. This is a significant win for workers and organizing groups like Rideshare Drivers United who have been advocating for its implementation and enforcement. Rideshare drivers are tech workers, too. If you are a driver, you can file a wage claim here.

In Chicago, Instacart shopper and organizer Matthew Telles of Gig Workers Collective gives a personal look into the deteriorating working conditions that prompted gig workers to fight back in an interview for Picture Theory. “Grocery workers are dying and Instacart isn’t doing them any favors,” says Matthew. He also talks about how Instacart customers lure shoppers with “tip baiting,” how pay and pretty much everything bottom-out after the first 90 days of being a shopper, and the unique challenges of building solidarity among gig workers and independent contractors.

Hate groups promoting violence are continuing to flourish in private Facebook groups. “Dozens of angry Michiganders, fueled by conspiracy theories and disinformation about the coronavirus, are promoting violence and mobilizing armed rallies against Gov. Gretchen Whitmer on Facebook, in violation of the social media company’s policies.” Facebook’s inaction and complacency are unacceptable during this unprecedented public health crisis. Meanwhile, 11,250 current and former content moderators working for Facebook globally — from Phoenix to the Philippines — were awarded a $52M settlement of at least $1,000 each. This is a major symbolic victory but a minor cost to Facebook, and a very small amount to compensate for what may be life-long post-traumatic stress for handling some of the worst content on the web.

Google is rolling back its diversity & inclusion initiatives in order to avoid conservative backlash, allege current and former employees. A Google representative claims that it’s because Google doesn’t have “the global resources” to build that capacity internally, which seems a little hard to believe for a company with a $100 billion cash hoard — not to mention a pattern of retaliation against workers who are reporting harassment. The tech industry at-large has a long history with a severe lack of representation, not only in leadership roles but also in rank-and-file positions. We, as workers, cannot be complacent in this.

In History

On October 1, 1999 the Communications Workers of America renewed their drive to organize IBM employees. The CWA previously attempted to unionize IBM in 1985. This time around, the union started a new organization called Alliance@IBM. It reported that roughly 100,000 of the company’s 140,000 workers were eligible for unionization. Union supporters started outreach at dozens of locations over the next 17 years, raising dozens of problems we see in tech today. Linda Croft, an employee in Endicott, NY, noted that IBM “will lay people off, then rehire them as contract or temporary workers — at much lower salaries and no benefits — for the same positions.” The Alliance@IBM organizing ended in 2016. At its peak, it had 400 dues-paying members. Their website is still viewable at and their Facebook page is still active.

While ultimately unsuccessful, we find their campaign inspiring and can learn from their efforts.


In Song

We Will Win, by Fifteen

You’re one check away from
Being homeless just like me.
Lower class, middle class, no class we’re all the same
We got all the bosses, we got landlords, we all play the slavery game
They’ve got the guns but we got the numbers
When the people are one we will be unstoppable
Everybody knows employment is just abuse anyway
Everybody knows it ain’t no use anyway


We Will Win
We Will Win
We Will Win