Musk, and his car company's management, have such a deep — and now well-established — repulsion to the idea of Tesla's employees unionizing that it's hard not to be reminded of what happened the last time a billionaire was faced with employees that wanted to create an organized workers' association to protect and advocate their rights, safety and interests.
Namely, Joe Ricketts, who destroyed the national newsrooms of local-reporting blogs in the Gothamist network out of spite after the votes to unionize.
Ricketts is notoriously right-wing and anti-union; Musk is making his feelings clearer about unions by the day: The comparisons to Trump's tactics are cast in a darker hue under this auspice. Calling Reveal News an "extremist organization" on the take from United Automobile Workers is only the volume going to eleven after over a year of Tesla's battles against those who would unionize on Musk's assembly floor.
The public part of this spat began in February 2017 when Tesla employee Jose Moran published a Medium post detailing harsh working conditions. "Many of us have been talking about unionizing," he wrote, "and have reached out to the United Auto Workers for support ... Recently, every worker was required to sign a confidentiality policy that threatens consequences if we exercise our right to speak out about wages and working conditions."
When the Medium post hit the news, Elon Musk personally refuted all of Moran's claims to Gizmodo via Twitter DM. He went further, saying that Moran was a paid UAW plant. "Our understanding is that this guy was paid by the UAW to join Tesla and agitate for a union. He doesn't really work for us, he works for the UAW," Musk told Gizmodo.
Auto industry outlet Automotive News reported in March, "Since then, more reports of on-site injuries have emerged, as well as lawsuits documenting employee discrimination. The UAW has also filed charges with the NLRB [National Labor Relations Board], alleging Tesla intimidated pro-union employees and forced them to sign nondisclosure agreements barring discussion of plant conditions."
Automotive News added:
The most recent unfair labor practice complaint, filed with the NLRB in February, claims Tesla disciplined or terminated employees for participating in union activities in the past six months, according to documents obtained by Automotive News via public records request.
Well, one thing is about to change the conversations regardless of any war-of-words skirmishes between Tesla and union organizers: On Wednesday, the California Occupational Safety and Health Administration (Cal/OSHA) officially initiated an open inspection on Tesla for occupational safety. Cal/OSHA didn't disclose further details, but my guess is that it probably boils down at least in part to the color yellow.
It's a peculiar detail in an already freaky story. On a cursory look across his products and branding, I'd believe that Musk sincerely hates the color yellow. And the thing about the color yellow is that it's a universal safety color for many very good reasons, like the way our eyes react to it — we literally see it better and at distances more than other colors because of the way the human eye works. Importantly, it is also the only color that most color-blind people can actually see.
A quick comparison between photos of Tesla's factory floor and other American auto manufacturers reveals -- pun intended -- a big difference in the use of those ubiquitous yellow safety markings.
In the end, it's hard not to think of this as another episode of billionaires gone wild, yet another example of the ultra-rich malfunctioning when rubbing shoulders with the people they share the planet with. It's too bad. I mean, imagine having it all, and instead of becoming who you want to be, you become a critique of who you wanted to be.
* Update: An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated that the link was to one photo of a random pole. There is one photo of a random pole, but thanks to reader Fabian Pimminger, we have corrected our piece to reflect that each word in Tesla's sentence links to a photo of an isolated object.