Aug 10, 2020 - Energy & Environment

Biden’s union push could force showdown with Elon Musk

Photo illustration of Elon Musk and Joe Biden facing each other with a colorful background

Photo illustration: Annelise Capossela/Axios. Photo: Yasin Ozturk/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images, Joshua Roberts/Getty Images

Joe Biden wants to go big on climate change and big on unions. Elon Musk leads on the former but lags on the latter.

Why it matters: Musk isn’t uniquely averse to unions, but Tesla is considered a leader on the type of new technologies needed to tackle climate change. Musk’s leadership ethos could be in the crosshairs if Biden becomes president and follows through on his campaign vows.

Catch up fast: Biden’s climate-change plan calls for renewable energy to largely replace oil, natural gas and coal and for a huge buildout of electric vehicles. He is also pushing for these clean-energy industries to embrace unions, which they largely have not.

  • Tesla is poised to benefit greatly from Biden’s climate policies, but Musk has a history of anti-union behavior.

Where it stands:An administrative law judge ruled last fall that Tesla and Musk broke federal labor laws during a series of actions by company officials and tweets by Musk in 2017 and 2018 as workers were trying to form a union.

  • An appeal is pending at the National Labor Relations Board, an independent federal agency. But current law doesn’t impose penalties regardless. To this day, Tesla doesn't have a union.
  • Tesla has also been cited for dozens of safety violations at its massive plant in California, Forbes reported in a 2019 article.
  • More recently, union officials say Musk may have broken other labor laws by opening Tesla’s plant during the pandemic despite government officials requesting otherwise.

The big picture: Tesla falls somewhere between automaker and tech company, but Musk is a classic Silicon Valley CEO, most of whom generally eschew unions. America’s three major automakers — General Motors, Ford and Chrysler — all have unions. Foreign automakers with less history in the U.S. don’t have unions here, and neither do tech companies.

For the record: Tesla’s press department didn't respond to multiple requests for comment.

  • Musk has defended his record on worker rights several times on Twitter, saying in 2018 that he is not opposed to unions generally, just the United Auto Workers. UAW filed the original complaint with the labor board.
  • Tesla also said in a document filed with the Securities and Exchange Commission this spring: “Tesla’s employees are free to associate or refrain from associating with any third parties, including labor unions.”
  • Biden campaign spokesman Matt Hill didn’t comment on Tesla specifically, and instead said generally that Biden’s climate plan will create “more than one million good-paying union jobs to make America a global leader in producing electric vehicles and their parts.”

The intrigue: Experts following Tesla say the firm is missing an opportunity to lead not only on climate, but on worker rights too.

“They would be a better company and a more successful company if they decided to embrace the idea that employees need to have a voice and employees need to be able to participate in the wealth that is created by this innovation.”
— Dave Foster, former Energy Department official now working on labor issues at the Energy Futures Initiative

How it works: Biden’s recently expanded climate and energy plan calls for sweeping changes to labor laws, along with aggressive goals to transition away from fossil fuels.

  • Workers building clean-energy infrastructure “must have the choice to join a union and collectively bargain,” the plan states.
  • The plan supports legislation making it easier for workers to collectively bargain. Biden says he would also hold executives “personally liable” if they interfere.
  • Democratic Rep. Richard Neal of Massachusetts, who chairs the powerful House Ways and Means Committee, said earlier this summer he wants to include electric vehicles in pending legislation that would provide greater incentives for renewable-energy companies with stronger labor standards. The potential of that bill passing with an electric-vehicle component would increase greatly if Biden wins.

What they're saying: “What Biden is suggesting is that you finally have some teeth in U.S. labor laws,” said Richard Bensinger, a former national organizing director of the AFL-CIO.

  • “By holding Musk personally accountable it might deter Musk from his usual union busting. The current law has no penalties, only remedies and no individual liability,” said Bensinger, who was also a former organizing director of the United Auto Workers.
  • “This will make a big difference in organizing places like Tesla because it will take these owners and hold them accountable for fighting the right of American workers to organize a union.”

Yes, but: As with most bold campaign promises, this one relies heavily on Congress supporting Biden’s goals. If the Senate remains in Republican control (a prospect that's looking less certain), a lot of what Biden wants won't happen.

Go deeper: Biden tries to bring unions into clean energy

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