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Tesla workers plan protest — and push Elon Musk to say Black lives matter

Interviews and internal communications show growing frustration with the outspoken CEO's relative silence on police reform and racial justice.

Tesla workers plan protest — and push Elon Musk to say Black lives matter

Tesla employees are calling on CEO Elon Musk to make a statement about the Black Lives Matter movement.

Photo: Yasin Ozturk/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

Workers at Tesla's Fremont factory are planning a protest for racial justice on Friday, as employees at the company's corporate headquarters call on CEO Elon Musk to make a formal statement in support of Black Lives Matter.

On June 1, following the killing of George Floyd in Minnesota by a white police officer, Musk did tweet about the issue, writing in a reply, "Definitely not right that the other officers were charged with nothing. What message does this send in general to officers who stand by while another does wrong? #JusticeForGeorge." And he replied to a Chris Rock clip about the absurdity of calling cops "bad apples" with the words, "Well said."

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But Tesla's employees say that's not enough. According to internal communications reviewed by Protocol and interviews with two Tesla employees who asked to remain anonymous, Musk has yet to issue any kind of message to his staff expressing solidarity with people protesting police brutality across the country or with Tesla's Black employees.

"We want a statement from the CEO condemning racism. We can't even get that," one Tesla employee who belongs to an employee resource group for people of color told Protocol. Earlier this month, the employee said, members of these groups held a call with the company's head of North American human resources, Valerie Workman, but have yet to receive a response from Musk. Leaders of employee resource groups have also sent a list of proposals to the company's head of diversity and inclusion, Kristen Kavanaugh, which includes a call for "direct action" from white executives, including Musk.

"We can't even get a statement saying racism is not tolerated," the employee said of Musk. "That silence is a silent consent."

Tesla representatives did not respond to Protocol's requests for comment.

Internal communications reviewed by Protocol show that in the weeks since Floyd's murder, as protests across the country have grown, Tesla workers have been speaking out internally about their frustration with the lack of input from Musk.

"Has he said ANYTHING AT ALL?" one message reads.

"All I've gotten from him are emails regarding SpaceX, the production of the Y series etc.," read a reply. "Not looking for a change the world speech but to know your CEO appreciates the […] immensely diverse company he has created during this time period would be reassuring."

"The level of silence on this matter from the CEO is deafening," wrote another.

One of the organizers of the factory protest told Protocol they also had not received any word from Musk. "We think it's disappointing that he hasn't made a statement about it," the worker said. "We want to know that he at least cares about us. We want actual support, not [a] statement that he could post online to make himself look good. If he really cared, he'll show up at our protest."

The factory workers have been promoting their event on Twitter as a march for justice to commemorate Juneteenth and plan to march from the factory to City Hall. In addition to concerns about Musk and Tesla, the protesters plan to raise issues with Fremont Mayor Lily Mei, who pushed for the factory to reopen while stay-at-home orders were in place in Alameda County. The organizers have booked speakers, including Anna Watson, a physician's assistant who blew the whistle on what she described as unsafe practices at Tesla's onsite medical clinic.

"It's bigger than Tesla or [Mei] or any other company," the protest organizers wrote in a statement. "It's about changing the world and the way we see it."

Workman did send a message to all of Tesla's U.S. employees shortly after the protests began. In the message, which Workman shared on LinkedIn, she wrote about the challenges of being Black in America and at work. "Fearing for the lives of my husband and sons is a constant nagging undercurrent that I suppress so that I can go about my day (just as my mother, my grandmother and my great-grandmother learned to live with this fact of life)," Workman wrote. "Despite being a proponent of bringing your whole self to work, I never discuss this part of my life in the office."

In her email to the staff, Workman wrote, "Please know that Elon, myself and the entire Tesla leadership team fully support you in bringing your whole self to work."

On the call with Tesla's employee resource group members, the Tesla employee who spoke to Protocol said Workman reiterated Musk's support. Musk, however, wasn't on the call.

Workman also forwarded employees a note from Kavanaugh, who said Tesla would begin a series called "listen to understand," which would encourage employees to "come together, listen to our colleagues' stories, share learning resources, and help us all better understand new perspectives." Kavanaugh wrote that the company was committed to connecting workers through the employee resource groups.

Internal communications show that Tesla's employee resource groups, including Black At Tesla, have served as spaces for Black employees to share their past experiences and support one another over the last few painful weeks. But the corporate employee who spoke with Protocol said it's challenging to connect the many Black factory workers at Tesla to these resources, in part, because of non-solicitation rules Tesla has in place.

According to a version of the policy reviewed by Protocol, Tesla employees are prohibited from distributing literature during working time or in working areas. That includes any time employees are expected to be working, except for rests, meals and breaks.

But, the employee said, those are the workers who arguably need these resources the most. Tesla has been the subject of several lawsuits alleging racial discrimination in its factories. In at least three cases, Tesla has moved to force the plaintiffs into arbitration.

"A lot of the employees most vulnerable aren't even plugged into the employee resource groups, because they're not aware they exist," the employee said.

Indeed, the protest organizer Protocol spoke with had never heard of Black At Tesla.

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