Workers Claim Racial Bias and Abuse at Electric Car Factory
ELON MUSK'S WHITE SOUTH AFRICAN RACISM IS VERY VISIBLE
discrimination lawsuit filed by former factory workers will test the
legal rights of contractors.
Diaz, right, and his son Demetric in Oakland, California, on
a fall evening in 2015, Owen Diaz went to drop off food for his
20-year-old son Demetric, whom he’d helped find a job at the same Tesla
Inc. factory where Owen operated elevators. As he turned the corner, the
two African-American men allege in a lawsuit, Owen saw Demetric’s
supervisor condemning his black subordinates with curses and slurs:
“All you f-cking n-ggers,” they heard him say. “I can’t stand you
made me feel like I was less than a man,” said Owen Diaz. “I couldn’t do
anything.” In the end, he is doing something: the two are suing Tesla,
along with contracting firms West Valley Staffing Group and Citistaff
Solutions, alleging a pattern of racial harassment and hostility.
three deny the allegations. But unlike other former Tesla workers’
allegations of race and sex discrimination, the electric car giant
hasn’t been able to keep this one out of court. As contract workers,
Owen and Demetric weren’t required, as many direct Tesla employees are,
to settle any disputes through binding arbitration. Their case has
entered discovery, with depositions scheduled to start later this month.
A federal trial is scheduled to start in 2019.
it gets to trial or not, the process threatens to bring unwanted
scrutiny and unwelcome disclosures about Tesla’s culture, and the
treatment of sub-contracted staff who play key roles in the attempt to
meet Chief Executive Officer Elon Musk’sambitious
company said in an emailed statement that it takes discrimination and
harassment of all forms “extremely seriously,” has a dedicated team
focused on investigating and addressing workplace concerns, and requires
online anti-discrimination and harassment training for all employees:
“We will never be able to stop every single person in the factory from
engaging in inappropriate conduct, but we will continue to do everything
that we can to encourage the right behavior and to take action whenever
something bad happens."
the Diaz lawsuit, both men say they were regularly subject to racist
epithets by co-workers and supervisors. Along with slurs, Owen says
co-workers told him to “go back to Africa” and drew racist caricatures
in bathroom stalls and on bales of cardboard—images of dark-skinned
figures with bones in their hair and big lips, captioned with the word
“Booo!” He’s kept a photo of one.
Owen confronted a supervisor about the drawings, they allege, he
replied, “We’re just playing, why do you people take things so hard?”
Ultimately, they charge, their complaints about discrimination were
ignored or rebuffed, until they caused West Valley to terminate Demetric
and Citistaff to demote Owen, who then quit.
neither Owen nor Demetric ever got a paycheck directly from Tesla,
they’re suing Musk’s firm as a “joint employer”—a company that exercises
enough control over a group of workers that it shares legal
responsibility when they’re mistreated. In a November court filing,
Tesla denied the allegations. As to joint employer status, Tesla
believes that with few exceptions, it’s unfair to hold a company
responsible for another company’s actions, a spokesperson said.
employees have become increasinglycommon,
but the responsibility of the client is still unsettled. During the
Obama administration, the National Labor Relations Board made it easier
as joint employers; the precedent is facing a challenge in federal
court. The U.S. House of Representatives also passed a bill that would
reverse the Obama precedent. The legislation hasn’t progressed in the
say Tesla exemplifies the trend, making ample use of sub-contracted
staff in a wide range of roles at the Fremont factory, which is
currently racing to accelerate production of its all-electric Model 3.
Chartwell Staffing Solutions is currently advertising for 106 assembly
line workers at a “manufacturing company” with a “busy facility in
Fremont, Calif.” A Tesla spokesperson said it’s common for firms to add
temporary workers during busy periods, and Tesla temps get safety
training, access to break areas and free snacks, just like direct hires.
the court holds Tesla accountable as a joint employer, it “would have a
major impact on the behavior of other similarly-situated businesses,”
Weil, the dean of the school of social policy and management at
Brandeis University. “Companies like Tesla will insist on those workers
meeting their standards and their quality levels but on the other hand
shirk the traditional responsibilities of having a person who does all
contract employees may actually be what gives the Diaz lawsuit a public
hearing. Like a growing number of companies, Tesla uses employment
contracts that require workers to resolve disputes through arbitration.
The automaker hasinvokedsuch
agreements in a series of recent worker discrimination disputes, pulling
them out of the public eye. Business groupssayarbitration
is swift and efficient for everyone, but labor advocates argue it’s a
secretive process and biased against workers.
agreements may be about to become even more widespread and easier to
enforce. By June, the U.S. Supreme Court will rule in acasethat
could shut down efforts by the federal labor board to reign in
arbitration agreements that prevent class action suits.
Owen and Demetric say they have no arbitration agreement
with Tesla, the company’s attorneys have offered several
defenses against their claims, including that the men allegedly failed
to avail themselves of the company’s channels for addressing
discrimination, that Tesla was unaware of any wrongdoing by staff, and
that any actions the company took against the plaintiffs had valid
its emailed statement, the company also said the plaintiffs “were at
Tesla for only a short time and have been gone for well over a year” and
that the only “relevant evidence” the company had found so far was an
email in which Owen Diaz complained about a co-worker’s alleged yelling
and aggressive comments but not racism.
accused the plaintiffs’ attorney Larry Organ of mounting “a carefully
planned media blitz in an attempt to create a disingenuous narrative,” a
common theme for the car company. In November, after Organ filed a
putative class actionalleginga
“hotbed of discrimination” at Tesla, the automakerrespondedwith
a blog post titled “Hotbed
of Misinformation.” The company attacked Organ directly, saying he
“has a long track record of extorting money for meritless claims and
using the threat of media attacks and expensive trial costs to get
companies to settle. At Tesla, we would rather pay ten times the
settlement demand in legal fees and fight to the ends of the Earth than
give in to extortion and allow this abuse of the legal system.”
response, Organ says he considers Tesla’s attack a “badge of honor,”
given the company’s conduct as described in the suit.
Diaz and his son Demetric say they were never out to get
Tesla, a company they were both thrilled to work for and whose
fossil-free vision they enthusiastically support. “I brought my son—I
told him it was a good job,” Owen said. “To me, that’s probably one of
the worst things I could have ever done for him, was put him in that