Workplace

Racist graffiti, 'plantation' jokes and 100 potential lawsuits: Ex-workers say Tesla is still racist

The N-word, demeaning jokes and retaliation on the basis of race are all common at Tesla, according to 100-plus sworn statements from a class-action lawsuit and public records obtained by Protocol.

Tesla workers on the line in Fremont, California

Just under 120 people have requested the right to sue Tesla since 2018 for discriminatory reasons, according to public records obtained by Protocol.

Photo: David Butow/Getty Images

When Aaron Craven clocked in to work every day at the Tesla Fremont factory, he knew he might hear or be called the N-word. When he walked into the bathroom stalls, he knew he might see graffiti of "KKK" or a swastika.

"I was directly called n----- and n---- approximately 100 times at the Fremont factory," Craven said in a sworn statement. "I heard the terms n----- and n---- used over 100 times by co-workers, and by my lead Auggie, in the Tesla factory."

Former Tesla workers also called ex-contractor Aaron Minor "n-----," and Minor, too, found swastikas in the bathroom. Minor heard the factory called "the Plantation" and its Black employees "cotton workers." "My understanding is that people refer to the Tesla factory as the Plantation and call employees cotton workers because Tesla treats its Black employees like slaves," he wrote in a sworn statement.

These sworn statements and 103 other declarations sworn under penalty of perjury comprise a 500-page exhibit filed in March 2021 as part of a 2017 lawsuit that alleges Tesla discriminates against Black people and has allowed a racially hostile work environment to fester in its factories. The lawsuit's allegations against the company are not unique: While Tesla has for years denied that it tolerates and enables racist and discriminatory behavior, Protocol found that since 2018, just under 120 people have requested the right to sue Tesla in California for discriminatory reasons related to race, national ancestry, skin color, gender, age, disability or other factors related to family and medical leave. Nine of those claims were denied the right to sue for insufficient evidence.

Craven, Minor, Adrianna Leaks, Akylah Davis, Amamonye Robbins, Ambriz Ladson, Andrexia Robbins, Angela Allen, Anthony Williams and Antonio High submitted the first 10 declarations/affidavits in the March 2021 packet. All accuse Tesla and its managers and employees of racism and discrimination at the Fremont factory (which Tesla says employs more than 10,000 people). In addition to slurs and allusions to slavery, many of the statements allege struggles for job promotion, workers forced to perform menial tasks below their pay grade or different from their colleagues, and an employer disinterested in investigating allegations.

Tesla has been battling the lawsuit, called Marcus Vaughn v. Tesla, in Alameda County Superior Court since 2017, when ex-Tesla contractor Vaughn first alleged his own experiences of racism at Tesla's Fremont factory. Vaughn is represented by Larry Organ and Bryan Schwartz, attorneys for the California Civil Rights Law Group. The firm has filed several individual cases on behalf of other Tesla workers in addition to Vaughn's class action, all alleging similar experiences of racial discrimination. So far, the group has lost one case and won the other in arbitration, while a third (Owen Diaz v. Tesla) is set to go to trial later this year.


The 105 sworn statements from Minor, Craven and other ex-Tesla workers were filed in March 2021 as part of an effort to win class-action status in the Vaughn case. A class-action lawsuit permits one person (in this case, Vaughn) to represent a larger group of people who are similarly situated (in this case, other employees who allegedly experienced similar racism and discrimination) and seek damages on their behalf. But the case first needs to be certified by the court as a class action.

Additionally, for workers to sue for employment discrimination in California, they first must obtain the "right to sue" from the California Department of Fair Employment and Housing, which Organ helped some workers do in 2017 to get the Tesla lawsuits off the ground. Organ's class action and the hundreds of complaints with the California DFEH are relatively unique because Tesla has made it exceptionally difficult for anyone who works for the company to sue in instances of discrimination. "Many of these issues are subject to arbitration because Tesla requires people who sign their contracts as regular Tesla employees to sign an arbitration agreement as part of that contract," Organ said.

The Vaughn class action might be able to succeed in court because Tesla contract employees have not been required to sign arbitration clauses in the past, Organ explained. "It also appears there are some people who have not signed arbitration agreements but do work as regular employees at Tesla because they can't find the arbitration agreements," he said.

And since 2018, without Organ and Schwartz's help and separately from their lawsuits, other former Tesla contractors and employees have continued to ask the California DFEH for the right to sue the company for race, sex or age-based discrimination at Tesla locations in California.

Despite Tesla attorneys' insistence in court that Vaughn's alleged experiences don't represent a collective group experience, the public records obtained by Protocol show that more than 100 workers have been granted the right to sue the company since 2018. (Though these complaints were filed separately from the class action, many of the Fremont workers could be eligible to join the Vaughn lawsuit, according to Organ.) More than 30 of those 100 "right to sue" letters involved accusations of discrimination on the basis of race, skin color, ancestry or national origin at the Fremont and Palo Alto locations specifically. Race-based complaints about Tesla are on average more common than the proportion of race-based complaints state-wide; while about 10% of all cases requesting right to sue were filed on the basis of race with the DFEH in 2020 (and less than that in previous years), more than 30% of the Tesla cases from 2018 to 2021 are based on allegations of racial discrimination.

"My personal view is that Tesla does not focus on investigating and preventing these claims. They are really focused on making cars, and less focused about their employees' conduct in the workplace, based on the discovery that we've done in five different cases," Organ said.

"It all depends on the facts of the case. However, what our class action has revealed and what the culmination of these cases shows, use of the N-word and other racist symbols like a swastika has been consistently used at the factory in Fremont since 2015," he claimed.

The "right to sue" data reviewed by Protocol include people who allege they were denied promotions and work opportunities or were suspended or forced out because of their gender, age or race. Often, the complainant simply states: "Denied a work environment free of discrimination and/or retaliation." The majority of the right to sue letters with race-based complaints were issued in 2018, though seven more were issued in 2019, and eight in 2020.

If you have a story you'd like to share about your own experience at Tesla, reach out to akramer@protocol.com.

Tesla has vociferously argued against certifying Vaughn v. Tesla as a class action, alleging that Vaughn's experiences at the California factory were unique and that the company dealt with the people involved in creating the racially-hostile environment Vaughn described in the suit. "After a thorough investigation, immediate action was taken, which included terminating the employment of three of the individuals," the company wrote in a 2017 press release. Tesla did not respond to requests for comment for this story.

After Organ started pursuing cases for the former workers who are actually free to sue, "Tesla started sending NDAs with arbitration agreements to their contractors, to people who were working at Tesla through staffing agencies. They want to try and push everybody out to arbitration," he said.

The Vaughn case recently won a partial victory against Tesla, securing validation from Alameda Judge Winifred Smith in April 2021 that at least three potential "classes" exist that could allow the case to be certified as a class action. The contract workers, contract workers who became employees and full-time employees who did not sign arbitration agreements could all be eligible, according to Organ.

"Tesla is very reluctant to give us information about what has happened in the workplace. We're in the discovery stage, but Tesla moved to decertify our class allegations prematurely. The judge rejected that," Organ said.

The workers listed in the DFEH records obtained by Protocol might also be eligible to join the Vaughn class action, according to Organ. A court might allow people who filed race-based discrimination complaints in the Fremont factory specifically and meet any of the three potential "class" descriptions to join the class.

"We have evidence from the Diaz case, dating back to 2015, that there was racist conduct on the Tesla factory floor. And we have evidence from the Vaughn case that that racist conduct is continuing today. If you said the N-word back in 2015, and you said the N-word recently, within the last couple of months…" Organ stopped talking. "In general, race claims are up from before Trump. He, I think, empowered many racist people to express their racist proclivities. And so we know there's a steep increase in the number of intakes and cases that we took that are race-based, and the severity of them was worse."

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