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Tesla paid PR firm to surveil employees on Facebook in 2017 union push

An aerial view exhibits the Tesla Fremont Manufacturing unit in Fremont, California on February 10, 2022.

Josh Edelson | AFP | Getty Pictures

In 2017 and 2018, as some employees sought to kind a union on the Tesla manufacturing facility in Fremont, California, Elon Musk‘s electrical automobile firm was paying a consultancy, MWW PR, to observe workers in a Fb group and extra broadly on social media, based on invoices and different paperwork reviewed by CNBC.

Two issues that MWW PR watched carefully had been discussions alleging unfair labor practices at Tesla, and a few sexual harassment lawsuit, based on the paperwork describing their work.

Whereas the information confirming Tesla’s surveillance of workers on-line are years outdated, they maintain new relevance for observers in search of larger understanding of CEO Elon Musk’s priorities the place social media is worried.

Musk not too long ago struck a $44 billion settlement to purchase Twitter, the social community he has relied on for years to advertise his firms and mock or criticize perceived enemies, together with short-sellers, whistleblowers, the UAW, journalists, and elected officials in the Democratic party. He’s anticipated to turn out to be interim CEO of Twitter if the deal is accomplished.

The information present that Tesla paid MWW PR to observe a Tesla worker Fb group, monitor Fb extra broadly for commentary on organizing efforts, and to conduct analysis particularly on organizers, occurring to develop labor communication plans, media lists, and pitches primarily based on their reconnaissance.

A worldwide communications director for Tesla throughout the time, Dave Arnold, had ties to the PR and consulting agency the automaker employed to do that work. He was employed at MWW for about 4 years from 2011 by 2015 as a vice chairman, following a stint as as a communications director for former Rep. Anthony Weiner (D-N.Y.) based on a press release from MWW saying his rent.

Tesla and Elon Musk have clashed with union proponents for years. In 2017, Tesla fired a union activist named Richard Ortiz and in 2018, Musk tweeted a remark discovered to have violated federal labor laws. The Nationwide Labor Relations Board ordered Tesla to reinstate Ortiz and to have Musk delete his tweet, which they stated threatened employees’ compensation. Tesla has appealed the executive courtroom’s ruling and his tweet stays.

Musk has criticized many Democratic elected officers together with President Joe Biden for his or her pro-union views. He not too long ago stated he plans to vote Republican in upcoming elections as a result of “the Democratic Get together is overly managed by the unions” and class-action legal professionals. Tesla’s factories in Texas and California have by no means held union elections.

A spokesperson for MWW PR advised CNBC:

“MWW consulted with Tesla in 2017-2018 on a broad worker communications engagement throughout a interval of speedy development on the Firm.  It’s a frequent observe to evaluation media protection and public social dialog about an organization to achieve insights into points and perceptions of stakeholders in regards to the model.”

Arnold and Tesla didn’t reply to requests for remark.

‘Social listening’ vs surveillance

There are justifiable the explanation why firms control what their workers submit publicly on-line, based on John Villasenor, a professor at UCLA and fellow at Brookings Institute whose analysis focuses on the affect of expertise on society, regulation and public coverage.

He stated, Suppose you’ve gotten an worker logging on and issuing all types of racist statements publicly. You could possibly argue it will be in an organization’s curiosity to know that. If an individual is saying issues that immediately implicate their health to be an worker, you’ll wish to know that and you can’t simply say it is none of our enterprise.”

Crucially, Villasenor famous, there are additionally brilliant moral strains that shouldn’t be crossed with regards to accessing workers’ social media profiles and posts.

Jennifer M. Grygiel, a Syracuse College affiliate professor whose analysis focuses on propaganda and social media, advised CNBC firms ought to chorus from any motion that interferes with employee’s rights, particularly their rights to debate, kind or be a part of a union.

“Any group can interact in ‘social listening,’ utilizing publicly out there social media knowledge to achieve insights for product improvement, or to grasp voters, public and worker sentiment and extra,” Grygiel stated. “However there are legal guidelines within the US that shield the rights of individuals to arrange. In case you’re a PR agency, or a supervisor who has to infiltrate a semi-private group? That is dishonest. And I doubt Tesla would ship a PR agency to determine learn how to help employees concerned in organizing.”

Three individuals who had been Tesla workers in Fremont in 2018 advised CNBC they had been warned by colleagues to not hyperlink to their bosses on social networks, nor to hitch Tesla worker teams on social media, until they knew each single individual within the group, together with the administrator operating it, and had a say over who could be invited to hitch. Two others who work for the corporate immediately stated workers assume that Tesla retains an in depth watch on their social media posts.

Internally, workers chat in plenty of teams, together with on Mattermost (an open-source chat product) and Groups (the video conferencing platform from Microsoft) however Tesla doesn’t use Fb’s Office and didn’t in 2018, these individuals stated.

Tesla’s present communications coverage, obtained by CNBC, says that managers shouldn’t entry subordinates’ pages on social networks until there is a distinct enterprise cause why they have to accomplish that. The coverage additionally discourages workers from talking out on-line about work points, and cautions:

“You usually tend to resolve considerations about work by talking immediately together with your co-workers, supervisor or different administration personnel, or by contacting your Human Assets Associate or accessing Tesla’s Integrity Line, than by posting considerations on the Web.”

Present and former workers who spoke with CNBC about Tesla’s use of social networks requested to stay un-named, as that they had not been licensed to talk to press or had signed non-disclosure agreements barring them from making vital public statements about Tesla.



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