‘It makes us want to fight harder’

It’s been quite a few early days for organizers of the union campaign at Tesla’s South Buffalo plant, which employs some 2,000 people.

There was the excitement of Tuesday when they officially launched the campaign and immediately got national attention.

Lizzie McKimmie, a data annotation specialist at the Tesla factory in Buffalo, talks about the demands of work in the factory’s autopilot department, where employee performance and output are closely monitored.

Then, on Wednesday and Thursday, they saw more than 40 of their factory colleagues tapped on the shoulder and fired. While the union claims the layoffs were made in retaliation for organizing and has filed suit with the National Labor Relations Board, Tesla said the workers were fired for poor performance ratings and not the campaign.

“We’re doing this for all of us — the employees — and when we saw the retaliation and saw so many people laid off, we were all so down after that day,” said Alexis Hy, a Tesla employee about a year old. and a half. “But it makes us want to fight harder for those people and for the rest of us who are left.”

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The Tesla Workers United Organizing Committee met on Saturday for its first press conference since the campaign launched. There, in the same room on the fifth floor of Buffalo’s Tri-Main Center where Workers United has previously celebrated major organizational wins at Starbucks, the Tesla employees described the backstory on how the organizing began, the circumstances they sought to resolve, and how they intend to to do this.

“We believe unionization will give us a voice in our workplace that we believe has been ignored to date,” the organization Tesla Workers United said in a statement.

They described how unrest among workers gained momentum during the historic November blizzard that buried parts of western New York in 2 feet of snow. During the storm, they said workers were told to take paid time off, sick leave or vacation time if they couldn’t get to the facility. And while hundreds of factory employees work full-time at their computers in the autopilot department, tagging data for Tesla’s self-driving program, they are not allowed to work from home.

Many employees also spoke on Saturday about feeling micromanaged — “down to the keystroke,” one employee said — and like Tesla is monitoring their performance and output. Hy and others talked about skipping toilet breaks to try and meet quotas.

In a statement this week about employee layoffs, Tesla said it conducts performance reviews every six months, with the last cycle taking place from July to December. With that, Tesla said executives were made aware of the appraisal schedule on Dec. 13, noting that “low performers” would be fired the week of Feb. 12. Tesla said about 4% of employees on the Autopilot label team were laid off as a result of the latest performance review cycle.

Tesla Inc.  cites poor performance reviews as grounds for firing, not a union campaign

Tesla said the “affected workers” were identified on Feb. 3, about a week and a half before Tesla Workers United announced its campaign on Tuesday.

Nick Piazza, who has worked in data annotation at the Tesla factory since November 2021, said the layoffs have encouraged employees and shown many employees why fighting for job security is important. At this point, workers said autopilot is the primary department involved in the union campaign, though factory workers are also getting involved.

Workers are also calling for wage transparency at the factory. When he was hired five months ago, Will Hance said he was promised an automatic pay raise after three months, which would have raised his salary to $20.40 an hour. Hance said the promised pay rise for him and other new hires never materialized.

Tesla did not respond to an email asking for comment on Saturday.

Tesla employees hold press conference on union campaign

Al Celli wears Tesla Workers United buttons while listening during a press conference at the Workers United Organization Center in Buffalo, Feb. 18, 2023. Tesla employees hold their first press conference to discuss their ongoing union campaign, as well as Tesla’s response to their efforts.

Libby March

Lizzie McKimmie, a data annotation specialist at the plant, joined Tesla in April 2021 after eight years as a veterinary technician. The Grand Island resident said she enjoys working at the Tesla factory, although she finds it stressful that she could lose her job at any time, especially as a single mother living paycheck to paycheck.

“I want the best for my colleagues,” says McKimmie, a Niagara Falls native. “I love this job and I really want to make it better.”

Jon Harris can be reached at 716-849-3482 or jharris@buffnews.com. Follow him on Twitter @ByJonHarris.


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