Monday Apr 15

MONEY MATTERS - What’s the Damn Problem with Elon??

Now I’m a pretty good eco-citizen – I compost left-overs, recycle assiduously, solarized my roof, and drive a…Tesla! While always a bit quirky, slow, and odd, dealing with Tesla has always been a contributing part of “going green.” I even got batteries from them to back up power which goes off regularly when we get one of those “atmospheric river” storms out here on the left coast, and I deployed an early version of Starlink at my country place that has no cable option for internet. Over the years, my early enthusiasm for the remarkable contributions Tesla has made in moving us toward a de-carboned environment has…shall we say waned a bit. Not because their products and services aren’t doing what they should, but because their CEO is turning out to be…let’s see, I think “wacko” might be an appropriate descriptor. I mean, what in the world is this character doing??

While riding high with the EV revolution in the auto industry, and incidentally becoming the titular “world’s richest man,” Elon went out and bought a struggling Twitter for what, $40 some odd billion? His stated commitment to “free speech” seems to mean “go ahead and hate” as he gutted the internal review and editing capacity of what is now called “X” which is a far better moniker for a car than a social media platform. I know this because there isn’t a published article where it’s just “X.” Instead, it’s always “X, formerly known as Twitter” or something along those lines. Even these many months after the sale, no one can just say “X” and have people know what it means. Crazy.

One can imagine another path Elon could have taken – embracing his advanced leadership on environmental matters and refining what a 21st Century version of democratic capitalism could look like. More on that in a minute, but instead, Musk seems to like the excitement of tacking right just to defy gravity. Virulently anti-labor, he also seems, unlike his wanna-be billionaire buddy Trump, careful not to offend his Chinese market (though he’s lagging BYD there in EV sales), and then re-tweets antisemitic memes during a period of tragic conflict in Gaza. Hard to understand how he thinks that helps him sell more cars. Out there in MAGA-land, you don’t see a whole lot of Teslas pulling ag trailers full of corn so it’s more like he’s just flipping the bird to all those highly educated customers who buy his cars but vote the other way. At least they do for a while until other EV options slowly show up. The advantage of the latter is that they won’t have to sport bumper-stickers asserting “love the car, hate the man.”

Another self-defeating – and remarkably unpopular Tesla position – is that unions are only for suckers. Right. As the UAW consolidates it’s remarkable win over the Big 3, they can credit the emergence of Shawn Fain who replaced decades of soft, corrupt leadership. Fain is a different kind of animal and is rooted in working class culture and politics more akin to the 50s than today. I don’t think Musk has a clue of what he’s up against and certainly should get no solace from how the new UAW contract reads. Even before the strike, Business Insider pegged Big 3 labor costs averaging $66/hr versus Tesla at $45/hr. The new contract will come close to doubling labor costs for the Big 3. Somehow, one has a hard time imagining that Tesla workers will enjoy sipping their lemonade on short breaks for a third or less the compensation of unionized autoworkers down the road. And in case no one is noticing, unemployment rates are still hovering at historic lows making replacing workers hard and expensive. Sure, $45/hr beats working at a fast-food joint, but I don’t think that’s the point. Even Toyota dropped an unexpected $9/hr increase on their labor force just days after the UAW win. But Tesla? Have they noticed what is happening in Sweden?

This morning NPR ran a story about how Swedish dock workers, in a collaborative labor action, refused to unload Teslas in the giant Malmo port, all due to a strike among the tiny Tesla workforce there. Tesla does no manufacturing in Sweden, but all auto companies need mechanics and service workers and Tesla is no different. All 125 of them have been on strike since late October. And it may be a harbinger of things to come:

Tesla has long fended off efforts to unionize its workforce around the world. But in Sweden, the electric vehicle maker is facing its first formal labor action over its anti-union stance, with potential ripple effects for the company globally. The Swedish metal and industrial workers union, IF Metall, which represents Tesla's roughly 120 workers, launched a walkout at the company in late October.

And now, Swedish workers of all stripes – dockworkers, electricians, cleaners and others – are banding together to boycott the U.S. company in solidarity. The strike is a response to the company's refusal to sign a collective bargaining agreement for its employees, almost all of them mechanics, because Tesla doesn't have a manufacturing plant in Sweden.

Even postal workers will stop delivering mail to Tesla. About 90% of the entire Swedish workforce belong to trade unions and they are covered by contracts with their employers, which standardize pay rates, insurance and pensions, among other work conditions, in each sector.

NPR 11/17/23

There is a vast ocean between Sweden and the US, and between the labor movements in the two countries. But in the US, there has been a remarkable shift in public opinion toward labor unions, despite the decades of demonization by the GOP and rightwing talking heads. Now, nearly 2/3 of Americans favorably view unions and collective bargaining. So how long will Elon go before a reckoning? No one knows, but as a regular customer excited about Tesla innovation and green credentials, and like Ross Gerber – a large Tesla investor who is ditching his Model Y for a Rivian thanks to Musk’s antisemitism – I think I’ve bought my last Musk product until the UAW prevails over Tesla’s knee-jerk anti-union stupidity.

In his remarkable new book, The Crisis in Democratic Capitalism, Martin Wolf argues that renewing capitalism needs to recast FDR’s New Deal principles in this way:

  1. A rising, widely shared, and sustainable standard of living
  2. Good jobs for those who can work and are prepared to do so
  3. Equality of opportunity
  4. Security for those who need it
  5. Ending special privileges for the few

To say this is aspirational, is an understatement. But Wolf’s book lays out social, political, and economic reasons why, without this, democracy itself is at risk. Elon ought to take notice, even if he has to tear himself away from X-ing his perceived adversaries.

DRUMMOND PIKE, a frequent Organizers’ Forum participant and contributor to these pages, was the founder and CEO of Tides in San Francisco, and continues to be involved in philanthropy and social change.