Elon Musk says letting workers unionize creates ‘lords and peasants’. What? | Steven Greenhouse
"In case workers need any additional arguments for why labor unions are good for them, a powerful new argument comes from none other than Elon Musk. Last month at the New York Times DealBook Summit, a gathering of lords of finance and industry, Musk said: “I disagree with the idea of unions … I just don’t like anything which creates a lords and peasants sort of thing.”
That the world’s richest human dissed the idea of unions should certainly be seen as a selling point for unionizing. Musk’s statement shows that he realizes that unions can be highly effective in harnessing the collective voice and power of workers, not just to limit the autonomy of power-hungry CEOs like him in managing their companies, but also to counter the capricious and often officious way he runs things. Musk is allergic to the idea of letting workers and their union have a voice in how to run – and improve – things.
Musk also sought to slime unions by saying: “Unions naturally try to create negativity in a company.” He seems to conveniently forget who has created the negativity at his companies. After acquiring Twitter, Musk fired four-fifths of its 7,500 workers. There, it was Lord Elon, not a union, that created a tsunami of negativity.
Not only that, Musk – making Twitter’s workers play a twisted game of Survivor to vie for the remaining jobs – seemed to gloat when employees worked 20 hours a day and slept in the office as they tried to impress him that they should be spared his axe. Indeed, Musk reportedly told employees to sleep in the office.
Back in 2018, Musk, issuing a threat from on high, tweeted out a warning to workers at Tesla’s plant in Fremont, California, that they would lose stock options if they unionized. A federal appeals court ruled that Musk’s tweet was an unlawful threat to his peasants – whoops, I mean his workers.
Then there was the disgraceful episode in which Musk mocked a Twitter employee who had muscular dystrophy. Musk said that respected employee “did no actual work, claimed as an excuse that he had a disability that prevented him from typing”. Even Fortune Magazine, that long-time champion of capitalism and capitalists, ran a scathing headline about this episode: “Elon Musk’s disability shaming may not be illegal but it was cruel – and it shows how badly bosses can treat employees.” (Musk eventually apologized to the worker, who was Icelandic and was voted that country’s “person of the year” in 2022.)
Not stopping there, Musk fired two dozen Twitter workers who had the audacity to criticize him – some publicly, some privately. Musk calls himself a free speech absolutist, but God forbid that workers exercise their free speech rights to criticize him. Musk’s firing of workers for speaking out is a compelling reason to unionize. If unionization means anything, it means one can only be fired for just cause, not for some Muskian caprice.
In all these episodes, Musk acted like a lord and treated his workers as peasants. So, no, Elon, it’s not the union that “creates a lords and peasants sort of thing”. When you and other corporate executives treat workers like disposable pawns, that’s what creates a lords and peasants thing.
Beyond Musk’s threat that Tesla workers would lose stock options if they unionized, Musk’s managers have at times violated labor law and acted illegally to beat back unionization. Last April, a judge ruled that Tesla broke the law by seeking to suppress workers at an Orlando service center from discussing pay and grievances about working conditions.
Musk got into an ugly spat with a rank-and-file worker at Tesla’s Fremont plant after that employee wrote a blog post detailing workers’ complaints. Musk falsely accusedthe worker, José Moran, of being a paid agitator for the UAW. Moran once testified that Musk told him “you don’t really have a voice” with a union.
Although Tesla workers have stock options, their compensation is far less than the UAW’s compensation package at GM, Ford and Stellantis. At Tesla, it’s $45 an hour in wages and benefits versus about $65 for UAW workers at the Detroit automakers – and that was before the UAW won a 25% raise over four and a half years after its six-week strike.
Shawn Fain, the UAW’s president, mocked Musk’s remarks. “The irony is he talks about lords and peasants, and that’s [their] current status,” Fain said. “While he’s getting extremely wealthy off the backs of his workers and he’s building rocket ships to fly his ass into outer space, workers continue to scrape to get by.”
At the moment, Musk is at war with Sweden’s labor movement because for more than five years he has refused to begin contract talks with the union that represents the mechanics who service Tesla cars in Sweden. Their union has gone on strike, and Sweden’s dockworkers, electricians and postal workers have joined a secondary action against Tesla to support them.
By refusing to bargain, Musk has shown contempt for Sweden’s economic system, in which more than 90% of workers are covered by collective bargaining agreements negotiated between companies and unions. Irked by Musk’s contempt for unions, dockworkers in Denmark and Norway have joined Sweden’s dockworkers in refusing to unload Tesla cars.
Showing even more disdain for unions, Musk called the Swedish strike “insane”. Scandinavian union leaders are aghast at Musk’s up-yours behavior. “Even if you are one of the richest people in the world, you can’t just make your own rules,” said Jan Villadsen, the chairman of Sweden’s 3F union’s transport division.
Susanna Gideonsson, president of the Swedish Trade Union Confederation, said: “What grinds our gears is that a large corporation thinks it can come here and set the rules on the Swedish labor market. To think you can waltz in here as a feudal lord and think a whole country should adapt to one’s whims is just wrong.”
If Musk sincerely feels kinship with his worker-peasants, he wouldn’t act like a lord who talks down to them about why they shouldn’t unionize. Instead, he would respect their intelligence and judgment and butt out and let them decide on their own whether they want a union to help improve their wages and working conditions.
Musk was certainly off-base in blaming unions for creating “a lord and peasants sort of thing,” but he did make one unarguably accurate statement in his remarks at the Dealbook Summit. He said: “If Tesla gets unionized, it will be because we deserved it and because we failed in some way.”
If you pay your workers 30% less than UAW members, insult your workers, fire workers for merely criticizing you, seek to suppress workers from exercising their federally guaranteed right to discuss pay and working conditions, there’s no denying, that you definitely “failed in some way”.
Mr Musk, many of your workers want a better deal from you, the world’s richest person. They’re convinced you can easily afford to pay them more. Many of them also want protections from your capricious and sometimes cruel behavior. Let’s be frank: if it weren’t for your fierce, sometimes intimidating opposition to unions, many more of your workers would be loudly proclaiming that Tesla and your other companies should be unionized “because” you “deserved it”.
Steven Greenhouse is an American labor and workplace journalist and writer"