Dennis Duran was excited when he got a job at Tesla’s Fremont, California factory. He was looking forward to being part of a new company pioneering electric vehicles, especially one that paid well and provided health insurance. At orientation managers told him, “You’re going to really love it here. This is a good place to work.”
But Duran found the reality of working at Tesla was a stark contrast from what he’d been promised. “It’s almost like a modern day industrial sweatshop,” he told More Perfect Union.
Tesla’s Chief Executive Elon Musk’s aggressive growth targets contribute to a culture of cutting corners and minimizing employee concerns. “All they care about is hitting numbers and doing whatever they can to please Elon,” Duran said. Workers were so afraid of leaving the production line to use the bathroom that they would not drink enough water and vomit from dehydration.
The culture was so intense that managers “just threw away health and safety out the window,” Duran said. Employees would cut their arms and hands and bleed on the line instead of going to bandage themselves up, lest they get in trouble for slowing down the assembly line. When Duran’s colleagues did step away to address their injuries, he said, “Management would start yelling at you and they’ll be like, why did he cut his hand? What is he doing? I’ll change them out with someone better.”
Duran had been prepared to work long hours at the factory but, he reflected, “I had no clue what I was getting myself into.” He was expected to work twelve hours a day, eight or ten days in a row, using a sanding machine emblazoned with a warning not to exceed eight hours of use. “It was brutal,” Duran said. “After just four days of 12 hours, like my fourth day, it was really bad. […] It was excruciating waking up with that much pain.”
The pressure to maintain production was so high that Duran and his peers were forced to walk through raw sewage that had spilled on the floor. When the workers hesitated, managers told them, “Just walk through it. We have to keep the line going.” Duran could not plan days off to rest because management would constantly change work schedules based on the factory’s progress towards its production goals.
Not all of Tesla’s safety violations had to do with speeding up the pace of work; some were just plain negligent. When Duran was assigned to spray top coats of paint he worked in 86 degree heat breathing air thick with pink paint particles. But Tesla only provided him with a half mask instead of the regulation full mask which covers the entire face and eyes. After a doctor expressed shock that Tesla did not provide gloves to absorb and dampen the vibrations from tools and heavy machinery, Duran purchased his own.
Duran’s experience is reflected in Tesla’s appalling safety record. A 2017 report found that the injury rate at Tesla’s factories was 31 percent higher than the industry standard—and that the rate of serious injuries at the company’s Fremont plant was almost double the industry standard for 2015. The amount of time workers took off for injuries tripled in 2018 as Tesla launched the Model 3. And these figures do not even account for all of the injuries in the plants; Tesla mislabels injuries as “personal medical” cases and injured workers are routinely sent back to work through their pain so they are not counted on legally mandated safety reports.
Eventually, Duran spoke up to his health and safety supervisor. It did not go according to plan. “He almost tried to get me fired and tried to make accusations that I didn’t know the rules and it was a fiasco,” Duran recalled. “And we started arguing back and forth and eventually he would just try to harass me every day.” He was transferred to another supervisor, but the intimidation continued.
While Tesla churns through workers like Duran, Elon Musk has become one of the world’s richest men, worth an estimated $156 billion dollars. If Duran could speak to Musk, he would tell him, “I want the culture to change to feel less intimidating, less stress, more at equal levels. No more superiority complex over workers. I would want health and safety to be above production numbers. I want workers to just come into work every day knowing that their job’s gonna be there the next day.”
Tesla’s treatment led Duran to join an organizing campaign led by the United Auto Workers. “The culture was extremely anti-union,” he said. In March, the National Labor Relations Board ruled that Tesla had illegally fired, harassed, and interrogated workers who were part of the unionization effort. “A lot of coworkers were extremely afraid to say anything about the union. They always thought like anything union you’re going to get immediately fired.” When Duran would wear his union shirt at the factory, strangers would come up to him and tell him, “if I was you I’d be taking that shirt off.”
After five years of grueling hours, injuries, harassment, and an uphill unionization battle, Dennis left for another job. “The compensation and other benefits of Tesla never really outweighed the negatives,” he said. Duran now works at Kaiser Permanente, where his job is part of a union. Comparing his new workplace to Tesla is night and day: “You have a more democratic voice, you have a representative that stands with you. If there’s any problems with management, you don’t have to stand alone.”