A serious issue environmentalists have is that they are so market-oriented these days, that they rely on the power of the individual capitalists to build a sustainable economy. But green capitalists are still capitalists motivated by profit and therefore are going to exploit labor to the greatest level possible. As I have argued, environmentalists have to deal with this and demand the construction of a green infrastructure with union labor if they are going to build bridges with working-class communities. Dayen’s story on Tesla gets at the problems of labor issues in the green economy.
Along Silicon Valley’s interlocking freeways, low-slung tech offices with obscure names like Way.com or Oorja are populated by fresh-faced technologists in badges and pleated slacks, striving to create the next great app. But off the I-880 in Fremont, a white colossus rises from the landscape, a 5.3- million-square-foot monster that stretches across two interchanges. The gray lettering is a full story high: TESLA.
Here, the company makes high-end, zero-emission vehicles, luxury cruisers for a climate emergency. Chief executive officer Elon Musk has cultivated a reputation as an economic visionary and has been hailed for solving the world’s great challenges with panache. Tesla’s Fremont factory brought hope to a blue-collar, racially diverse town with a manufacturing tradition. And this week, after reports of a 69 percent increase in first-quarter sales, the automaker passed Ford in market value. But though its products epitomize the future, workers like Richard Ortiz say Tesla’s labor conditions are mired in the past.
Ortiz is a production associate in the closures department, assembling hoods, doors — “anything that opens or closes” on Model S sedans and Model X SUVs. Though videos of the Tesla factory emphasize robotic automation, over 6,000 workers engage in intense manual labor to build the cars.
“I have an eight-pound rivnut gun,” Ortiz said, referring to a tool that installs rivet nuts. “I’m doing that all day long. I’m to the point where, if I pick something up with any weight, within 30 seconds I have to drop it. That scares me, I want to be able to use my arm when I retire.”
Tesla workers say circumstances like Ortiz’s are commonplace at a factory that prioritizes production goals over health and safety. Now they’re fighting back against low pay, hazardous conditions and a culture of intimidation, seeking to unionize through the United Auto Workers. Tesla is the only U.S. automaker using nonunion workers at a stateside plant, and breaking through would give organized labor a foothold in the tech industry as well. Until then, the Tesla experience reveals that green jobs aren’t necessarily good jobs without worker power. “They want to make sustainable cars,” says Ortiz. “We need sustainable employment.”
The issues start with wages. According to Moran and co-workers, wages range from $17 to $21 an hour, well below the $29.04 national average hourly wage for motor vehicle manufacturing. Tesla claims stock awards push total compensation above autoworker averages, but workers counter that the stock doesn’t fully vest until four years of service. “I can’t tell a little kid, I’ll feed you in a year,” Ortiz said. Raises and promotions are also rare; Ortiz mentioned a colleague who received only one increase in seven years.
Tesla workers make luxury vehicles that can cost $90,000 or more but, unlike the people at Henry Ford’s plant, have no chance of buying one. “Seventeen dollars to $21 without a lot of benefits is not much higher than you can get being a gardener or a hotel clerk,” said Nelson Lichtenstein, a labor history professor at the University of California, Santa Barbara.
The low pay shrinks further in the San Francisco Bay Area, which has one of the nation’s highest costs of living. Though the heavily Asian and Latino residential districts around the factory feature modest one-story tract homes and apartments – I even saw a large mobile home park – housing costs are so exorbitant that employees cannot hope to live near the worksite. The median two-bedroom apartment in Fremont rents for $2,640 a month, according to ApartmentList.com. For a married Tesla worker making entry-level wages and working 43 hours a week, that’s equivalent to 90 percent of take-home pay.
Underpaid, overworked, bad workplace safety. Sounds ideal for a capitalist like Musk. Pretty bad for workers. What green groups should do is openly support the attempt of these workers to join the United Auto Workers. That should be an official position of environmentalists. It won’t be though because mainstream environmentalists have so deeply imbibed in rich people providing market solutions and have so few connections with working people that such a strategy would be an unprecedented shift. But this is how you strengthen environmentalism as a political movement in the long term, even if it outrages the supposed green capitalist heroes.