Some production and service workers at Tesla’s solar panel plant in Buffalo are struggling to make ends meet.

Their salaries are barely above what the state considers a living wage and half the average annual pay of other workers in the region’s advanced manufacturing sector.

Employees work most holidays and cannot gain more than 11 days of time off within a year. They also feel like they do not have job security or a grievance process at Tesla. 

That could soon change.

News 4 Investigates interviewed three Tesla workers who want to organize with United Steelworkers and International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers. This is the first time that local Tesla employees not handpicked by the company have talked publicly to the media about what it is like working at the factory.

“I love the environment, it’s clean,” said Curtis Johnson, who works on the assembly line at the Tesla plant that manufactures solar panels and solar roofs.

“There are a lot of good people that work inside Tesla. Can they feed their families? That’s another question.”

The Tesla plant on the edge of the Buffalo River at Riverbend was built and equipped with $750 million in taxpayer money. The project is the centerpiece of Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s Buffalo Billion economic development initiative.

Tesla, which bought SolarCity two years ago, is on the clock to create 1,460 jobs in Buffalo by the spring of 2020.

Politicians and community leaders celebrated with platitudes of “good-paying jobs” that would allow a new generation to move or stay in the area.

The workers, however, paint a different picture.

Both Rob Walsh, a 26-year-old materials handler, and Pete Farrell, a 22-year-old production associate, said they are on board with Tesla’s green, renewable energy vision. Yet, both do wonder if they will ever make enough money to build roots in a city they both love.

“I thought this could be my chance to really have a career here, to have a job that I know I could support myself and a future family on,” Walsh said.  “But of course it doesn’t always work out that way. When we’re organized, we can at least negotiate that.”

The average wage at Tesla is $16.20 an hour not including benefits and equity, according to a company spokesperson. 

Activists and organizers told News 4 Investigates that one of the problems is that the state did not push for a labor neutrality agreement with Tesla or any other Buffalo Billion recipient.  As a result, the employers do not have to keep a neutral position to unions.

“When you think about the work that they are actually doing, that this is high level manufacturing work, and they are making $30,000 a year?” said Linnea Brett, an organizer with Clean Air Coalition, a nonprofit organization helping Tesla workers with their effort to unionize.

“To me, that’s unacceptable.”

In response, a Tesla spokesperson tells News 4 the company “greatly values it’s employees and the direct relationship it has with them” at the Buffalo facility. 

Tesla argues that it provides a highly competitive wage and benefits package.

“We offer wages and benefits that exceed those of other comparable manufacturing jobs in the region,” the spokesperson said. “In addition, unlike other manufacturers, every single employee is an owner of Tesla, as everyone receives stock upon hire and for good performance, which results in significantly more compensation beyond our already high wages.” 

The company also insists that salary and wages are reviewed against benchmarks every six months, and that adjustments are made to ensure wages are competitive. 

The corporate culture at Tesla has not been warm to the idea of a unionized workforce.

The National Labor Relations Board since 2011 has fielded at least 20 complaints from workers and unions who accused Tesla in California of coercing, intimidating and retaliating against them for trying to organize.

Tesla has never faced an organizing effort in Buffalo, long considered a blue-collar union town in a state with the highest percentage of union membership in the nation. Tesla’s plant also sits on hallowed ground for unions, the site of the former Republic Steel plant that once employed thousands of unionized workers.

“My grandfather worked there for 17 years and he was a steelworker,” Walsh said.

“It’s important to me.”

Salary sticker shock

On Aug. 2, 2015, the state Department of Labor held a community meeting to recruit workers for the facility, which at the time was going to be occupied by SolarCity.

According to a person at the meeting, Kelly Navarro, who was then on the state’s Advance Buffalo Implementation Team, said salaries at the factory would start at $65,000.

That’s not the case for the workers spearheading the organization effort.

In fact, many of the manufacturing workers start off at between $32,240 and $34,320 a year, employees said, which is about half the sector’s average annual wage.

Navarro, who now is a senior technical recruiter for Tesla, did not return a message seeking comment.

“I had read the papers, I had heard about these are going to be living wages,” said Johnson, who worked for more than two decades as a union employee at GM before accepting a buyout.

“Once I went through it and I get into the room where they say, ‘well, we want to have you on board, this is what we’re paying,’ and I’m thinking to myself, wow, that’s not enough money considering my experience and my background.”

Johnson said he accepted the job because of what he considers to be a bright future for the renewable energy industry and his managers assured him that he would quickly advance, as would his pay.

“Hasn’t happened yet,” he said. “I was promised that I would move up, but the person that made that promise is no longer there.”

Instead, Johnson said he has seen favoritism and an “unfair playing field” on the job. He sees organizing as an opportunity to fix those problems, while helping workers negotiate for better wages and job security.

Tesla maintains that it makes an effort to promote from within, and that a weekly email is sent to all employees listing available job openings. 

By this summer, Tesla managers became aware of the organizing effort being conducted behind the scenes.

Soon after, in July, Tesla posted a $1.50 raise for workers. That same day, Tesla managers called a mandatory meeting at which the discussion turned to unions.

“They said that they are not against it, but they believe that it would be better without one, that whatever unions could do for us, that Tesla could also do themselves.” Walsh said.

“I definitely know that the people who were in favor of organizing kind of brushed it off and said ‘well, that’s OK, we’d still like to organize on our own.’”

This was the first taste for employees in Buffalo of how Tesla might respond to unions, an issue that is already a contentious one for the company in California, where organizing efforts have not been successful.

Tesla CEO’s tweets

News 4 Investigates found that since 2011, at least 20 complaints are filed against Tesla to the National Labor Relations Board.

Employees and the UAW have alleged Tesla engaged in coercion, retaliation, unfair discipline and surveillance of employees engaging in union activity.

In Lathrop, California, Tesla employees described a “culture of fear” of being fired for supporting unions.

A May 2018 complaint from the UAW and employees at Tesla’s Fremont, California factory, accuses CEO Elon Musk of threatening to take away employee stock options in retaliation for employees engaging in union activity. The UAW alleged in the complaint that Tesla fired workers who tried to organize. Tesla said they were fired for deficient performance.

A Tesla spokesperson referred News 4 to a previous statement on the NLRB trial. 

“These allegations, which have been filed by the same contingent  of union organizers who have been so outspoken with media, are entirely without merit. We will obviously be responding as part of the NLRB process,” according to the statement. 

Musk, who has come under scrutiny for his public meltdowns on Twitter, took aim at unions in a social media rant on May 22.

“Nothing stopping Tesla team at our car plant from voting union. Could do so tmrw if they wanted. But why pay union dues & give up stock options for nothing? Our safety record is 2x better than when plant was UAW & everybody already gets healthcare,” Musk tweeted.

In Buffalo, the employees also get stock options.

Attorneys for Tesla argued in a motion before the NLRB that Musk’s statement did not carry any threat of reprisal nor was it directed at any specific employee.

“Elon’s Tweet was simply a recognition of the fact that unlike Tesla, we’re not aware of a single UAW-represented automaker that provides stock options or restricted stock units to their production employees, and UAW organizers have consistently dismissed the value of Tesla equity as part of our compensation package. We fundamentally believe it’s critical that all employees be owners of Tesla so that everyone is on the same team, with all sharing in the company’s success.”

Musk continued the following day, tweeting that he never stopped a union vote or removed a union.

“UAW abandoned this factory. Tesla arrived & gave people back their jobs. They haven’t forgotten UAW betrayed them. That’s why UAW can’t even get people to attend a free BBQ, let along enough sigs for a vote.”

On June 17, Musk was at it again, implying that the Tesla could fail if employees organized.

“I’m not against all unions, but UAW has a track record of destroying productivity so a company can’t compete on world market. Our current factory went bankrupt under UAW before we took it over. Don’t want Tesla to die too.”

Tesla’s Buffalo workers have clear conditions they want the company to meet.

“They can improve on demands from the workers that are much needed in the workplace,” said Farrell, the production associate.

“I think that’s a big one, and demands such as fairness, and job security and higher wage.”

Brett, the organizer for Clean Air Coalition, said Tesla was more than “just a state-funded renovation project.”

“Tesla was a promise of a new economy – of an economy with jobs that can support a family, jobs that can sustain our environment and jobs that will literally power our homes and businesses,” she said.

“Tesla was a promise for our future and that’s not a promise that’s being kept.”

No labor neutrality?

Governor Cuomo in April signed legislation that provided additional protections to union membership for the state’s public sector jobs.

He credited the union movement that “built and protected the middle class,” while attacking President Donald Trump for painting “unions as an enemy to his economic plan.”

“If you are a private sector union, giving you a raise means lower corporate dividends and stock prices and he doesn’t want to do that so there has been a pattern – a pattern –  to be destructive to the union movement,” Cuomo said.

State officials, however, did not lend a helping hand to employees at Tesla.

Critics said the state could have included language in the memorandums of understanding or contracts to ensure that employers would remain neutral during organizing campaigns and grant union leaders access to company property and employee information.

Several federal appeals courts have found these types of union neutrality agreements to be legal and unions are relying heavily on them as part of their organizing campaigns. The agreements are more common when governments give financial assistance to a private-sector employer.

For example, the City of Chicago this summer required a labor peace agreement for its two major airports as a condition of merchants’ license. New York City’s Mayor Bill de Blasio mandated some retailers to enter into labor peace agreements before they can sell in a city development project.

According to Empire State Development, the state’s economic development arm, “All rules and regulations were followed by ESD when providing funding for the Buffalo Billion projects. Under present statute, a Labor Peace Agreement is not required for any of the Buffalo Billion projects, unless it involves a hotel and or convention center. However, we always support the rights of working men and women to organize.” 

“I think somebody dropped the ball,” said Johnson.

“There should have been some stipulations in there besides the number of people promised to work there.”

Brett said she has seen a pattern with these state subsidy programs of not guaranteeing benefits to communities.

“We’ve seen this pattern over and over again, where state and local governments make arrangements, with companies where there are these massive investments, there are tax abatements, there are other incentives to get companies to move in with no real mechanism to guarantee that these companies will be good neighbors,” Brett said.

“We were told that there would be over 1,400 jobs at $65,000 a year but there’s actually no way to hold them accountable for that.”

Tesla workers handed out organizing fliers Thursday on the public street that leads to the entrance of the sprawling facility.

The workers who spoke to WIVB said they are aware of the risk they are taking, but they are willing to stick their necks out for the better good of their colleagues. 

“There’s no guarantees in life, I get it,” Johnson said.

“The plant can close tomorrow, no one buys the product, it’s happened before with other industries. But at this point I feel like the union can help us move forward.”

Reacting to Thursday’s organizing drive outside the Tesla factory in Buffalo, a company spokesperson said the “demonstration consisted almost entirely of groups outside of Tesla, not Tesla employees.”

“Ultimately it’s up to our employees to decide if they want to be unionized,” the spokesperson added. “While we will never please everyone outside of Tesla, we have an unwavering commitment to providing a great workplace for our employees. That’s what matters.” 

An open letter from coal communities in support of Buffalo’s Tesla workers states, “We support workers who are organizing a union at the Tesla Gigafactory in Buffalo. “

“We see the unionization of Tesla, and of the renewable sector, as a strategy to build a just and equitable renewable energy economy, an economy that provides generational sustaining careers as our energy system transitions,” the letter stated.