The United Automobile Workers has hit Tesla with a federal labor complaint, claiming the electric vehicle maker consistently harassed and recently fired union supporters despite their strong performance records.
The complaint escalates tensions between factory workers and the automaker, even as Tesla scrambles to boost production and expand its market. The company also faces a new class action lawsuit over the terminations.
The UAW charges in a complaint filed this week the company retaliated against union supporters in its recent round of dismissals to thwart organizing efforts. Tesla fired several hundred employees this month after annual performance reviews.
A company spokesman said it respects workers rights to protest and discuss union organizing.
"No one at Tesla has ever or will ever have any action taken against them based on their feelings on unionization," the spokesman said.
He added that complaints to the National Labor Relations Board are commonly filed in union disputes.
Tesla workers are not represented by a union. The UAW this year began supporting workers seeking to organize at the Fremont plant, where employees have raised concerns about safety and low wages.
Among those fired this month were engineers, factory workers, and sales and administrative staff. The company said the dismissals, which employees have estimated to be between 400 and 1,000 workers, were based on annual performance reviews. Tesla refused to say how many employees have been fired.
Some of the ongoing dismissals include former SolarCity employees, a company spokesman told this news organization. Tesla acquired SolarCity for $2 billion in November.
The worker turmoil comes as Tesla is trying to expand production of its new Model 3 sedan, but only produced 260 cars last quarter. It has a backlog of about 450,000 orders for the lower cost electric vehicle. And major automakers are moving quickly to produce new, long-range electric vehicles to compete with the Palo Alto company's lineup.
Despite production woes and failure to turn an annual profit, Tesla is seeking to expand.
The company website lists more than 2,500 open positions, including engineers, production workers, sales persons and service technicians around the globe. Tesla is also seeking dozens of roofers and salespersons for its energy and solar products.
Many long-term employees remain angry about being fired, saying the dismissals were not related to performance.
One factory worker, Abraham Duarte, sued Tesla in Alameda Superior Court on Tuesday, claiming he and other workers were laid-off, not fired for poor performance. State law requires large companies to alert workers 60 days before they are laid off, or else face penalties of paying up to two months of back pay to workers.
The suit claims the terminations were the result of Tesla's "lack of funds or lack of work" and seeks back pay for the ex-employees.
Duarte worked in Fremont for three years and had an excellent work record, said his attorney, Nick Rosenthal. "This came as a complete shock to him," Rosenthal said.
Union supporters also felt targeted.
Richard Ortiz worked as a production associate in the factory. He supported the union, wearing t-shirts and sharing information about organizing the plant.
In April, Ortiz and two other workers filed a complaint with the NLRB claiming the company's confidentiality agreement restricted and intimidated workers from exercising their legal right to discuss unionizing.
Last week, Ortiz was fired. His supervisors told him he was let go for violating the confidentiality agreement.
"I've worked in auto manufacturing my whole life," he said in a statement. "I do not believe -- not for a second -- that I was fired for cause."
Mike Williams, 35, worked his way up to become a welder on the production line during his five years at Tesla. Some weeks, he clocked 72 hours at the factory to meet the company's aggressive production goals. He never received any complaints about his performance, he said.
After his shift on Oct. 10, he got a call at home in Pittsburg from his supervisor and a human resources officer. They told him he was a "negative influence" on his coworkers, and fired him.
Williams believes it was because he wore a union shirt and stickers.
Williams and several other workers interviewed have declined to sign a separation agreement, unsure whether to fight the terminations or accept the two weeks salary offered by the company and waive future claims.
"I was totally blindsided," Williams said. "I over-performed every day. I worked hard for this company."
© 2017 San Jose Mercury News under contract with NewsEdge/Acquire Media. All rights reserved.
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