Tesla is the next biggest target

Tesla is the next biggest target

Elon Musk

The carmaker is now US labor’s most important target. If Musk doesn’t like that, he’s welcome to settle it with an auto worker by cage match

The massive United Auto Workers strike against the big three automakers is, first and foremost, an awesome demonstration of labor power – the act of a powerful, longstanding industrial union, with newly radical leadership, determined to wage one big fight to reset a playing field that has been slowly tilting in the wrong direction for years. It is also, like a disturbing number of things in America today, a case in which the grotesque specter of Elon Musk looms like a silent villain over the entire proceedings.

Here is what I mean. The big three – Ford, GM and Stellantis – have long had workforces that are unionized with the UAW. The robust contracts that the union has been negotiating with the thriving industry since the middle of the 20th century played a large part in the creation of the unprecedented shared prosperity of the post-second world war middle class.

The American auto industry thrived, and the workers thrived along with it, and millions of families were able to live the “American Dream” on a blue-collar salary. That success story was eventually complicated by globalization and the offshoring of American jobs, but its legacy still exists today. The current strike, the first in UAW history to target all of the big three simultaneously, is to a large degree an attempt to ensure that “shared prosperity” persists as a genuine thing in the profitable auto industry.

But there is a spoilsport sitting on the sideline, licking its chops: Tesla. Though it doesn’t sell as many cars in America as the big three, the total value of Tesla (thanks to an army of cult-like investors) is more than five times the value of the Big Three companies combined. Despite years of effort from the UAW, Tesla is not unionized.

The company has been found guilty of illegal union-busting tactics, including firing workers who were trying to organize. Such tactics are fully in line with the attitude of Musk himself, who has routinely made anti-union statements and publicly threatened to take away employees’ stock options if they unionized. Despite having a net worth of $270bn, Musk does not believe that the workers who make his products should be able to get together and negotiate a fair contract for themselves. He’s greedy. He’s ignorant. He’s a crumb.

When the large majority of an industry is unionized, big strikes can raise standards for everyone, raising the floor for union and non-union workers alike. When only part of an industry is unionized, though, the non-union companies will always feel like they have an economic advantage – and, as a consequence, the unionized companies will fight harder against union demands, because they fear being undercut by their non-union competitors. The fact that unionized workers have higher job satisfaction, lower turnover and a better quality of life doesn’t mean much to the balance sheet-obsessed corporate executives who sit at the bargaining table.

This dynamic is playing out in the auto strike right now. Tesla already pays its workers significantly less than the big three, and as long as Musk has no union to answer to, he will sit back and savor a UAW win against his competitors that widens that gap.

There is a straightforward solution to this: unionize Tesla. It is no exaggeration to say that Tesla is now one of the most important union targets in America, given its structural role in undermining everything that the UAW is fighting for. The only alternative solution – the one preferred by billionaires and executives who understand capitalism perfectly – is to break the backs of unions and purge them from the industry altogether.

This is exactly what auto companies are trying to do every time they move a factory into a poor, anti-union southern state, where they can run it without any pesky interference from anyone trying to empower the people working the line.

So yes, this is a fairly simple choice. We can have a profitable American auto industry that provides good quality union jobs to hundreds of thousands of workers and helps resurrect the beleaguered middle class; or, we can have a profitable American auto industry that provides billions of dollars to people like Musk and pushes wages as low as the most desperate worker in rural South Carolina will accept.

What we cannot have, in the long term, is a situation in which the world’s richest conspiracy-addled Twitter addict uses the UAW’s gains at the Big Three as a chance to increase his market share by sticking it to his own underpaid non-union workforce.

Even inside the labor movement, many people see “strikes” and “organizing new unions” as two separate things. They’re not. They are, in reality, two pieces of a single strategy for maintaining the delicate balance of power between labor and capital. Unless unions can organize all of the major competitors in an industry, they will always find the power of their strikes leaking out one side or another.

The UAW knows damn well that Tesla workers need a union. But organizing an $800bn company run by a union buster with infinite money is not easy. The public, the politicians and every Tesla owner who would prefer not to be complicit in Gilded Age-style plutocratic inequality all need to lean on the big billionaire baby who can’t imagine having to share.

Not even Musk can hide from the labor movement forever. It’s been around a lot longer than he has. If he can’t bear to have a free union election in his plant, I’m sure that we could arrange a cage match for him with an auto worker to settle this issue once and for all.

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