Opinion: UAW part of anti-Tesla campaign

Jeff Joseph

The corporate campaign is a tried-and-true strategy in labor unions’ organizing playbook. The theory is simple enough: Create a critical mass of bad press for a targeted company, and that company will accede to the union’s demands to put a stop to the sordid stories.

Such a campaign is currently in full bloom against automaker Tesla, which has been targeted by the United Auto Workers (UAW) union. The UAW spent at least a half-million dollars on its Tesla campaign in 2017; its budget line items covered hotels, paid staffers, T-shirts and other assorted campaign swag, and a high-dollar retainer for a media consultancy.

Unflattering news stories are the bread-and-butter of a corporate campaign, and Tesla was hit with a particularly nasty piece this week from the investigative news outfit Reveal. The Reveal team did its credibility no favors by focusing on an unusual set of accusations, such as the claim that Tesla’s factory “doesn’t have any areas painted yellow.” (This claim was easily refuted by the company through photos of yellow-painted sections in the factory.)

The story’s reporters rejected the notion that their article was in any way linked to the UAW’s corporate campaign. Yet the union’s fingerprints were all over the story. The story’s featured employee had previously been identified by the union as one its surrogates in the plant; the chemical bonding agent that the reporters focused on had previously been singled out by the union; and the neutral “expert” who was called upon to comment on these findings had already been “tapped” by the UAW to author an anti-Tesla report.

(Consider the spectacle of a UAW-selected expert being asked by Reveal to comment on a negative story set in motion by the UAW.)

None of this is to say the stories of injured or aggrieved employees aren’t valid. In any manufacturing plant, injuries are an unavoidable fact of life; just ask the UAW, which presided over a much higher injury rate when it last occupied the Fremont plant. The question for readers and policymakers to ask themselves is whether these stories are being exploited to serve a third-party agenda.

In this case, the agenda is the UAW’s falling fortunes in the auto industry. The union desperately needs a win in the auto industry after high-profile losses in recent years at Nissan and Volkswagen. Its recent growth in membership has not been among auto workers, but rather among graduate student workers and others who have little to do with the auto industry.

Meanwhile, a growing scandal involving the misuse of funds earmarked for worker training has tainted the union’s brand among potential new converts. In this environment, Tesla’s employees are an attractive target—especially because company CEO Elon Musk seems committed to a long-term role for human involvement in auto manufacturing. (”Humans are underrated,” he tweeted recently.)

The UAW will take all the “fake news” it can get against its campaign organizing target. President Trump might have popularized that term, but labor unions have used it to their advantage for years. It’s a fact worth remembering next time you read a salacious, “too-good-to-check” story about a company that’s the target of a union organizing drive.

Jeff Joseph is an adjunct professor at the Schar School of Policy and Government at George Mason University.