On February 10, California’s Department of Fair Employment and Housing, the state-level equivalent to the US Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, filed a lawsuit against Tesla for racial discrimination based on the agency’s thirty-two-month investigation into the company’s Fremont, California, electric car factory.
The facility, which employs some 15,000 workers and is commanded by stridently anti-union billionaire Elon Musk, is the only nonunion plant in the United States operated by a major American automaker. Before Tesla purchased the facility in 2010, it was home to General Motors from 1962 to 1982, then to General Motors and Toyota’s jointly owned New United Motor Manufacturing, Inc. Left with little recourse against abuse and silenced by arbitration agreements that prevent them from taking complaints to court, the facility’s black workers say they have endured rampant discrimination.
The lawsuit, filed on behalf of thousands of black workers, alleges that Tesla segregated black workers into separate areas that were referred to as the “porch monkey stations,” “the dark side,” “the slaveship,” and “the plantation.” Workers allege that management “constantly use the N-word and other racial slurs to refer to Black workers.” As the lawsuit continues, “swastikas, ‘KKK,’ the n-word, and other racist writing are etched onto walls of restrooms, restroom stalls, lunch tables, and even factory machinery.” These workers complain that black workers are “assigned to more physically demanding posts and the lowest-level contract roles, paid less, and more often terminated from employment than other workers,” as well as denied advancement opportunities.
“In the San Francisco Bay Area and elsewhere, a job at Tesla is often seen as a golden ticket,” states the lawsuit:
It is seen as a way for those without a technical background or a college degree to secure a job in tech, and a path to a career and a living wage. Yet Tesla’s brand, purportedly highlighting a socially conscious future, masks the reality of a company that profits from an army of production workers, many of whom are people of color, working under egregious conditions.
According to the lawsuit, some 20 percent of Tesla’s factory operatives are black, but there are no black executives and just 3 percent of professionals at the Fremont plant are black. A blog post published on Tesla’s website the day before the California agency filed the lawsuit, titled “The DFEH’s Misguided Lawsuit,” asserts that the Fremont factory “has a majority-minority workforce and provides the best paying jobs in the automotive industry to over 30,000 Californians.”
“Yet, at a time when manufacturing jobs are leaving California, the DFEH has decided to sue Tesla instead of constructively working with us,” the post continues. “This is both unfair and counterproductive, especially because the allegations focus on events from years ago.” It concludes, “The interests of workers and fundamental fairness must come first.”
The lawsuit is not the first time allegations of racism at the Fremont plant have become public. In October of 2021, a San Francisco federal court awarded $137 million to a black elevator operator at the plant. That worker was able to file a lawsuit because he is a contract employee, meaning he is not bound by the system of arbitration that routes complaints into closed-door, private courts. Tesla has appealed the size of the award.
In recent years, Tesla has reduced the number of employees it directly hires. It now contracts with fourteen staffing agencies, some of which themselves subcontract out to other agencies (as former McKinsey & Co. analyst and best-selling author Tom Peters once advised, “Subcontract everything but your soul!”) The lawsuit characterizes this as a strategy “to avoid responsibility for its workers.”
As the Los Angeles Times reports, despite mandatory arbitration clauses, at least 160 worker lawsuits have been filed against Tesla since 2006, with “a major uptick in racial and sexual harassment suits against Tesla” in the past two years. Those suits include incredibly disturbing allegations: one black worker says that her boss “struck her with a hot grinding tool” in addition to using racial slurs, and that while that supervisor was at first fired, he was later rehired.
In October of last year, the same month the elevator operator was awarded $137 million for discrimination, Elon Musk announced that he was moving Tesla’s headquarters from Palo Alto, California, to Austin, Texas, where he will build a new assembly plant. Texas’s weaker enforcement of labor and civil rights protections was surely part of that decision. The lawsuit calls the relocation “another move to avoid accountability.”