A top House Democrat who has received $1 million from organized labor criticized Tesla CEO Elon Musk after the business mogul spoke out against the unionization of Tesla workers.
Democratic National Committee deputy chairman Keith Ellison (D., Minn.) accused the electric-car company's billionaire founder of violating Tesla workers' federal rights in a letter sent May 31.
Ellison said Musk's reaction to a United Auto Workers' campaign ran afoul of federal law barring "any employer attempts to interfere with, restrain, or coerce employees in the exercise of rights" to form a union. He tied the letter to recent complaints filed to the National Labor Relations Board over workplace conditions.
"Although it is the policy of the United States to encourage the practice of collective bargaining throughout industry, it appears particularly necessary when a company fails to ensure the basic physical safety of its employees," Ellison said.
Musk came under fire for a tweet that appeared to dissuade Tesla workers from unionizing at the Tesla Factory in Fremont, Calif.
"Nothing stopping Tesla team at our car plant from voting Union," Musk tweeted on May 21. "Could do so tmrw [sic] if they wanted. But why pay union dues & give up stock options for nothing?"
A Tesla spokeswoman declined to comment on Ellison's letter, instead referring to a previously released statement regarding the unionization campaign. The automaker has defended its treatment of workers, pointing to its equity program for production line employees.
"Elon's tweet was simply a recognition of the fact that unlike Tesla, we're not aware of a single UAW-represented automaker that provides stock options or restricted stock units to their production employees, and UAW organizers have consistently dismissed the value of Tesla equity as part of our compensation package," the statement said.
Ellison has received more than $1 million in career donations from public and private sector unions, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. One of his largest labor allies is the United Auto Workers, which has spearheaded the Tesla campaign. The union has contributed $31,500 to his war chest over the course of his political career. Ellison's heavy labor backing has not prevented him from fundraising off of corporations that have battled unions in the past.
One of Ellison's largest political donors is American Crystal Sugar (ACS), which ranks as a top-ten campaign benefactor, giving him $50,000 in contributions since 2005. The agricultural cooperative has had its own safety concerns and disputes with union workers. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration fined ACS nearly $2,000 following safety complaints at a Minnesota ACS processing plant in May 2015. The inspection revealed two violations at the plant, one of which was labeled "serious" on the report.
In December 2015, ACS told union workers to prepare for a labor dispute because the Bakery, Confectionery, Tobacco Workers, and Grain Millers union members refused a contract extension from the company. ACS sent a letter to workers notifying them of the contract extension proposal "in an effort to avoid the possibility of a strike or lockout in 2017." The letter raised concerns among labor experts that "the company is trying to pick a fight, or trying to create dissension within the rank-and-file in order to weaken the union." But union leaders refused ACS's proposal because they thought it was too early to negotiate a contract extension, which wasn't due for another two years. Union workers agreed to a five-year extension with ACS in May 2017, avoiding a potential lockout for thousands of employees. ACS did not return a request for comment regarding its dispute with union workers.
Ellison did not respond to request for comment about Tesla or his ACS donations. He concluded his letter by asking whether Musk intended to "refrain in the future from threatening his employees with retaliation for exercising federally protected rights."
Ellison asked Musk to respond to his letter by June 15.