Tesla paid PR agency to surveil workers on Fb in 2017 union push

An aerial view exhibits the Tesla Fremont Manufacturing facility in Fremont, California on February 10, 2022.

Josh Edelson | AFP | Getty Photos

In 2017 and 2018, as some employees sought to kind a union on the Tesla manufacturing facility in Fremont, California, Elon Musk’s electrical car firm was paying a consultancy, MWW PR, to observe workers in a Fb group and extra broadly on social media, in line with invoices and different paperwork reviewed by CNBC.

Two issues that MWW PR watched intently had been discussions alleging unfair labor practices at Tesla, and a few sexual harassment lawsuit, in line with the paperwork describing their work.

Whereas the data confirming Tesla’s surveillance of workers on-line are years outdated, they maintain new relevance for observers searching for higher understanding of CEO Elon Musk’s priorities the place social media is anxious.

Musk not too long ago struck a $44 billion settlement to purchase Twitter, the social community he has relied on for years to advertise his firms and mock or criticize perceived enemies, together with short-sellers, whistleblowers, the UAW, journalists, and elected officers within the Democratic get together. He’s anticipated to develop into interim CEO of Twitter if the deal is accomplished.

The data present that Tesla paid MWW PR to observe a Tesla worker Fb group, monitor Fb extra broadly for commentary on organizing efforts, and to conduct analysis particularly on organizers, occurring to develop labor communication plans, media lists, and pitches based mostly on their reconnaissance.

A world communications director for Tesla in the course of the time, Dave Arnold, had ties to the PR and consulting agency the automaker employed to do that work. He was employed at MWW for about 4 years from 2011 via 2015 as a vice chairman, following a stint as as a communications director for former Rep. Anthony Weiner (D-N.Y.) in line with a press launch from MWW saying his rent.

Tesla and Elon Musk have clashed with union proponents for years. In 2017, Tesla fired a union activist named Richard Ortiz and in 2018, Musk tweeted a remark discovered to have violated federal labor legal guidelines. The Nationwide Labor Relations Board ordered Tesla to reinstate Ortiz and to have Musk delete his tweet, which they mentioned threatened employees’ compensation. Tesla has appealed the executive court docket’s ruling and his tweet stays.

Musk has criticized many Democratic elected officers together with President Joe Biden for his or her pro-union views. He not too long ago mentioned he plans to vote Republican in upcoming elections as a result of “the Democratic Occasion is overly managed by the unions” and class-action attorneys. Tesla’s factories in Texas and California have by no means held union elections.

A spokesperson for MWW PR informed CNBC:

“MWW consulted with Tesla in 2017-2018 on a broad worker communications engagement throughout a interval of speedy progress on the Firm.  It’s a widespread observe to overview media protection and public social dialog about an organization to realize insights into points and perceptions of stakeholders concerning the model.”

Arnold and Tesla didn’t reply to requests for remark.

‘Social listening’ vs surveillance

There are justifiable the reason why firms regulate what their workers publish publicly on-line, in line with John Villasenor, a professor at UCLA and fellow at Brookings Institute whose analysis focuses on the impression of expertise on society, regulation and public coverage.

He mentioned, Suppose you might have an worker going surfing and issuing all kinds of racist statements publicly. You might argue it will be in an organization’s curiosity to know that. If an individual is saying issues that instantly implicate their health to be an worker, you’d need to know that and you can not simply say it is none of our enterprise.”

Crucially, Villasenor famous, there are additionally shiny moral traces that shouldn’t be crossed in terms of accessing workers’ social media profiles and posts.

Jennifer M. Grygiel, a Syracuse College affiliate professor whose analysis focuses on propaganda and social media, informed CNBC firms ought to chorus from any motion that interferes with employee’s rights, particularly their rights to debate, kind or be a part of a union.

“Any group can interact in ‘social listening,’ utilizing publicly accessible social media information to realize insights for product growth, or to grasp voters, public and worker sentiment and extra,” Grygiel mentioned. “However there are legal guidelines within the US that defend the rights of individuals to arrange. In case you’re a PR agency, or a supervisor who has to infiltrate a semi-private group? That is dishonest. And I doubt Tesla would ship a PR agency to determine easy methods to assist employees concerned in organizing.”

Three individuals who had been Tesla workers in Fremont in 2018 informed CNBC they had been warned by colleagues to not hyperlink to their bosses on social networks, nor to affix Tesla worker teams on social media, until they knew each single individual within the group, together with the administrator working it, and had a say over who can be invited to affix. Two others who work for the corporate right this moment mentioned workers assume that Tesla retains an in depth watch on their social media posts.

Internally, workers chat in quite a few teams, together with on Mattermost (an open-source chat product) and Groups (the video conferencing platform from Microsoft) however Tesla doesn’t use Fb’s Office and didn’t in 2018, these folks mentioned.

Tesla’s present communications coverage, obtained by CNBC, says that managers shouldn’t entry subordinates’ pages on social networks until there is a distinct enterprise purpose why they have to achieve this. The coverage additionally discourages workers from talking out on-line about work points, and cautions:

“You usually tend to resolve issues about work by talking instantly together with your co-workers, supervisor or different administration personnel, or by contacting your Human Sources Accomplice or accessing Tesla’s Integrity Line, than by posting issues on the Web.”

Present and former workers who spoke with CNBC about Tesla’s use of social networks requested to stay un-named, as that they had not been approved to talk to press or had signed non-disclosure agreements barring them from making crucial public statements about Tesla.

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