Power

A racial justice protest took part of Tesla’s factory offline last month, an internal employee email says

In an email obtained by Protocol, a Tesla employee told colleagues that a protest following the Breonna Taylor grand jury decision disrupted manufacturing in Fremont.

Tesla factory

Manufacturing in part of Tesla's Fremont factory was disrupted last month during an apparent employee protest, according to an internal email.

Photo: Lauren Hepler/Protocol

A brief disruption to production at Tesla's Fremont auto plant last month — described by the company as an act of sabotage by an employee who was subsequently fired — may have been the result of a protest over the Breonna Taylor grand jury decision, according to an internal email obtained by Protocol.

Tesla's top lawyer said last week that an employee had "maliciously sabotaged" a part of the Fremont factory, then attempted to cover it up, before ultimately confessing. In a message to Tesla workers, the lawyer called the employee's actions "crimes" and violations of the company's policies, but referred only obliquely to the perpetrator's "personal motivations."

But in an email obtained by Protocol, a Tesla engineer told several colleagues that the disruption was the result of a "peaceful direct action protest," following the decision not to charge any police officers in Taylor's killing. The engineer wrote in the email that he wanted to offer "a brief explanation of my behavior that day and how my role at Tesla fits within the broader movement for racial, social and economic justice." He asked a small group of Tesla employees to forward the message on to other colleagues "to whom you feel I owe an explanation."

The engineer went on to share personal stories of harassment by police: being pulled over, handcuffed, stopped and frisked, and having guns drawn on him. "I have done a substantial amount of work over the years to heal from those personal traumas. Unfortunately, the events of 2020 have punctured new wounds and old scars," the employee wrote. "But this is not about me, this is about a system that has little to no regard for Black and Brown bodies. This is about shutting down technocratic oppression in order to open up this nation's bodily and spiritual wounds."

The email was sent on Sept. 30, one week to the day after both the factory disruption and the decision in the Taylor case. The employee's identity is unknown to Protocol, because portions of the email, including the sender, recipients and identifying details, were redacted. But according to another Tesla employee who knows the email's author, it was written by an engineer whose termination was announced on Oct. 5, the same day Tesla announced it had fired the alleged saboteur.

The Tesla employee who spoke to Protocol said that on the day of the disruption, about a dozen engineers, including the email's author, gathered on a conference call, known internally as a "bridge," to deal with the issue. According to the Tesla employee, the email's author told other engineers on the call he had resolved the issue, leading one person on the call to ask jokingly whether the outage had been the result of a prank. The part of the factory that was disrupted was back up and running within a few hours.

In his email, the engineer did not directly confess to causing the disruption at the factory or say he was behind the "protest." Instead he wrote obliquely about the nature of such protests. "Direct action protests within the workplace often occur as a means of expressing the pain and confusion felt daily in the lives of oppressed people," he wrote. "As a Tesla employee, I often wonder where my role sits to advance the causes of Black and Brown liberation all while economically benefiting from the exploitation of historically marginalized Black and Brown labor on stolen Chochenyo Ohlone land."

The engineer wrote that he'd tried to express concerns about Tesla through the company's employee resource groups, but that "there is negligible support provided to ERG leadership for cultural amelioration." Those concerns, the engineer wrote, include the workplace discrimination lawsuits Tesla has faced, the company's use of forced arbitration in handling disputes, its non-solicitation policies regarding labor organizing, and what the engineer called a "paucity" of Black, Indigenous and people of color in technical and management roles.

"To conclude, I have been asking myself: is Tesla a place where people who have experienced profound intergenerational trauma can work and thrive?" he wrote. "I still don't know the answer to that, but the next few days will acutely reveal that for me."

The Tesla employee who spoke to Protocol said they support the engineer's actions, but are concerned as well. "I hope that they'll be OK after this," the employee said.

Tesla didn't respond to questions about whether this employee is the same one Tesla's acting general counsel Al Prescott accused of sabotage last week. In Prescott's email to staff, which was previously reported by Bloomberg, he made no mention of claims that the disruption was the result of a protest. "Whatever the personal motivations of the attacker were, these are crimes, violations of our code of conduct, and are unfair to other employees," Prescott wrote. "We will take aggressive action to defend the company and our people."

According to Prescott's account, the employee who was fired for sabotage "actively attempted to cover his tracks, falsely accused a former co-worker, destroyed a company computer and repeatedly lied during the investigation." Prescott said the employee eventually confessed "after being shown irrefutable evidence" and was terminated.

In the engineer's own email, he said he hoped to be "a catalyst for genuine change" within Tesla, and acknowledged that he was speaking "from a position of privilege" working for the company. But, he added that he understood that "those privileges can easily be stripped away."

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