Can unions deliver good green jobs at Tesla?

tesla injury ratesThe “Driving a Fair Future” website has documented the complaints against Tesla for years – including an analysis of  Tesla injury rates between 2014 and 2017 at its Freemont California plant, which showed that injuries were 31% higher than industry standards.  In June 2018, the U.S. National Labor Relations Board  began to hear some of the workers’ complaints of safety violations and anti-union harassment, with the United Auto Workers representing them.  Two themes have emerged in the saga of Tesla’s bad labour relations:  1. how can the apparently “green jobs” become decent, good jobs?  and  2. would unionization at Tesla give a toehold at other precarious Silicon Valley workplaces such as Google, Amazon, and their like.

“Tesla’s Union Battle Is About the Future of Our Planet” (Oct. 9) in Medium describes the union drive at the Freemont California electric vehicle  manufacturing plant, in light of its environmental mission. The article contends : “ This case isn’t just about Tesla. It’s about the future of an industry that sees itself as key to addressing the climate crisis. Clean tech companies peddle a progressive vision of a low-carbon future, but Tesla’s anti-union fervor suggests that some in the industry have lost sight of their work’s bigger point.”

Workers from Tesla’s solar panel factory in Buffalo New York  expressed similar sentiments in interviews with the  local news organization . Taking pride in their green jobs, they are seeking better pay, benefits, and job security through a unionization drive announced in December.  The Tesla Gigafactory 2 in Buffalo received $750 million in taxpayer funding for the state-of-the-art solar production facility, promising new jobs in a high unemployment area; the unionization campaign involves about 300 production and maintenance employees in a partnership between the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers and the United Steelworkers. The drive is endorsed by the Labor Network for Sustainability , which states: “We are hearing a lot about the need for a Green New Deal that will provide millions of good jobs helping protect the climate. These Tesla workers represent the Green New Deal in action.” Follow developments on the Facebook page of the Coalition for Economic Justice Buffalo.

Implications for High Tech workers: Why Elon Musk’s latest legal bout with the United Auto Workers may have ripple effects across Silicon Valley” is a thorough overview  about the UAW unionization drive at Tesla’s auto  manufacturing plant at Freemont California, from CNBC   in early December.  Similar themes appeared in  “What Tesla’s union-busting trial means for the rest of Silicon Valley” appeared in Verge in September 2018,  chronicling the arguments of the UAW and Tesla management – including Elon Musk and his tweets – during the NLRB hearings  in June 2018.   The article concludes that “Tesla’s case [is] a bellwether — particularly for Amazon. … Tesla might be a car company, but it’s also a tech company — and if its workers can unionize, tech workers elsewhere are bound to start getting ideas.”

What is life like for these high tech workers? A New Kind of Labor Movement in Silicon Valley” in The Atlantic (Sept. 4  )  gives a good overview, and introduces nascent groups as Silicon Valley Rising  and Tech Workers Coalition  .

 

Do electric vehicles create good green jobs? An Amnesty International report on Supply Chains says No

Tesla TruckNovember brought  exciting news about electric vehicles:  BYD,  one of China’s leading electric carmakers, announced that it will open an assembly plant in a yet-to-be-announced location in Ontario in 2018, (though according to the Globe and Mail article,   the new plant will only create about 40 jobs to start ).  Also in mid-November, Tesla revealed a concept design for  an  electric truck in an glitzy release by Elon Musk , and the Toronto Transit Commission announced its plan to buy its first electric buses, aiming for an  emissions-free fleet by 2040.    Unnoticed in the enthusiasm for these announcements was a report released by Amnesty International on November 15:    Time to Recharge: Corporate action and inaction to tackle abuses in the cobalt supply chain  which concludes : “ Major electronics and electric vehicle companies are still not doing enough to stop human rights abuses entering their cobalt supply chains, almost two years after an Amnesty International investigation exposed how batteries used in their products could be linked to child labour in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC).” (That earlier report was This is what we die for   released in January 2016) .

Under the heading “The Darker side of Green Technology”, Time to Recharge states: “Renault and Daimler performed particularly badly, failing to meet even minimal international standards for disclosure and due diligence, leaving major blind spots in their supply chains. BMW did the best among the electric vehicle manufacturers surveyed.”   Tesla was also surveyed and ranked for its human rights and supply chain management; Tesla’s policies are described in its response to Amnesty International here.  And further, Tesla has come in for suggestions of  anti-union attitudes  in “Critics Suggest Link to Union Drive After Tesla Fires 700+ Workers” , in  The Energy Mix (Oct. 23), and in an article in Cleantechnica , and for discriminatory policies in “The Blue-Collar Hellscape of the Startup Industry“, published in In these Times and re-posted in Portside.

The Amnesty International report is a result of a survey of 29 companies, including consumer electronics giants Apple, Samsung Electronics, Dell, Lenovo, and Microsoft, as well as electric vehicle manufacturers BMW, Renault and Tesla.  Questions in the survey were based on the five-step due diligence framework set out by the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) in its Due Diligence Guidance for Responsible Supply Chains of Minerals from Conflict-Affected and High-Risk Areas.  Detailed responses from many of the surveyed companies are here. 

Small steps for the miners behind electric vehicles and smart phones

Cobalt is a key ingredient in the lithium-ion batteries that power smartphones, laptops and electric cars. 60% of the world’s supply is mined in  Congo, according to “The Cobalt Pipeline” (September 2016),  a Washington Post special report which documented the appalling working conditions of the “artisanal miners”.  Occupational health and safety concerns for  miners was also  expressed in  “The Battery Revolution is exciting, but Remember they Pollute too”, by Carla Lipsig Mumme and Caleb Goods in The Conversation (June 2015).

In a December 20 article,  the Washington Post reports on two new initiatives to curb “the worst forms of child labor” and other abusive workplace practices in the supply chain for cobalt. The first, the Responsible Cobalt Initiative, is being  led by  the Chinese Chamber of Commerce for Metals, Minerals and Chemicals Importers and Exporters, and supported by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), with members pledging to follow OECD guidelines  which call for companies to trace how cobalt is being extracted, transported, manufactured and sold. Apple, HP, Samsung SDI and Sony have signed on.

The second initiative, the Responsible Raw Materials Initiative (RRMI) has been launched by the Electronic Industry Citizenship Coalition , a nonprofit group sponsored by more than 110  electronics companies, and  “dedicated to improving the social, environmental and ethical conditions of their global supply chains.” The EICC states that it “engages regularly with dozens of non-member organizations including civil society groups, trade unions and other worker’s groups, academia and research institutions, socially responsible investors, and governmental and multilateral institutions.”  Ford Motor Company is a member of the Responsible Raw Materials Initiative, by virtue of being the first auto manufacturer to join the EICC. ( Press release is here (February 2016). Ford has sought to brand itself as a leader in ethical supply chain management   ; see their report,  Going Further towards Supply Chain Leadership . Tesla, the most high-profile electric vehicle manufacturer, is said to be considering membership in the RRMI. According to a report from Energy Mix (June 24, 2016) “Tesla’s Ambitions Demand ‘Unprecedented Quantities’ of Key Minerals” , including lithium, nickel, cobalt, and aluminum to produce vehicle batteries.  As of January 2017, Energy Mix also reported  that  Tesla started mass production at its lithium-ion battery Gigafactory in Nevada, which will be the world’s largest when it is complete in 2018 .

tesla-gigafactory

Tesla Gigafactory, Nevada.  Photo from the Tesla website .

Life Cycle Analysis of Battery Electric Vehicles

electric carThe Union of Concerned Scientists has released Cleaner Cars from Cradle to Grave  , a comprehensive, two-year review of the climate emissions from vehicle production, operation, and disposal. It concludes that battery electric cars generate half the emissions of the average comparable gasoline car, even when pollution from battery manufacturing is accounted for. One chapter discusses the emissions of the manufacturing process, with estimates based on the Nissan LEAF and Tesla Model S. The study concludes that emissions from manufacturing a full-size BEV are about 33 percent of its lifetime global warming emissions; the remaining 67 percent come from driving it.