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Elon Musk tries to call AOC out on Twitter over expensive sweatshirts

Twitter owner Elon Musk tried to call Congresswomen Ocasio-Cortez out for the price of her sweatshirts, igniting interest in his past union busting attempts

Twitter logo displayed on a phone screen and Elon Musk's Twitter account displayed on a screen are seen in this illustration photo taken in Krakow, Poland on October 30, 2022. (Photo by Jakub Porzycki/NurPhoto via Getty Images)

Earlier this afternoon, Twitter’s new owner, Elon Musk, tweeted a picture of a sweatshirt sold in the Congresswomen AOC’s campaign store. The purple crewneck had a price tag of $58, which Musk described as the emoji with the thumbs on the chin.

The Congresswomen replied directly, calling attention to the fact that the workers who make the hoodies are unionized and receive full healthcare benefits, support with childcare, and a living wage. She then launched her own attack, saying, “You’re a union buster with an ego problem who pockets the change from underpaying and mistreating people.”

Very quickly, others replied with photos of Tesla’s apparel with similar prices.

Elon has a long history of union busting

It was more than a snarky remark from Musk, who has known hostilities towards labor unions.

Tesla is the only US car manufacturer operating domestically that does not use trade unions. None of the company’s more than 100,000 employees are able to officially bargain over wages and conditions collectively. Musk has defended this model as modern and touted generous salaries and stock options as enough to keep workers happy.

Some workers have another opinion, and many of their efforts to organize have been squashed.

In 2017, Musk took action to limit and discourage union organizing at his factory in Freemont, California. That same year, documents obtained by Reveal found that the company recorded 722 workplace injuries at the factory employing 10,000; this amounts to around two injuries a day that required taking time off of work and medical attention beyond first aid. At the time, a group of workers had gone public with information about the rate of workplace injuries, which from 2014 to 2016 were occurring at much higher rates when compared to the industry averages. Since those figures became public, Tesla has said that their numbers had improved significantly --falling below their competitors.

It would be nice to say the pressure of workers organizing motivated the company to change, but there is a more sinister answer. Investigative journalists at Reveal found that Tesla was taking active steps to make injuries that could have occurred outside of work not appear on their reports sent to state and federal officials.

The documents obtained by Reveal showed that “company officials labeled” certain injuries ranging from sprains to headaches from inhaling toxic fumes, “personal medical issues or minor incidents requiring only first aid.” Injuries that occur outside of work or only require first aid do not need to be reported.

The investigators were also able to speak with “five former members of its environment, health and safety team who [had] left the company last year,” who said that the company was putting the “manufacturing of electric cars above safety concerns” and that the systems of production “put workers unnecessarily in harm’s way.”

Rights to wear union insignia upheld in court

The 2017 complaint filed with National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) also included a question as to whether Tesla had violated their worker’s rights by prohibiting the group organizing from wearing pro-union t-shirts.

In August 2022, the NLRB released an opinion that stated that Tesla’s move constituted a labor rights violation. A majority on the board agreed that if an “employer interferes in any way with its employees’ right to display union insignia, the employer must prove special circumstances that justify its interference.” The organization found that Tesla’s justification was insufficiently broad and overly specific.

The positive news for workers at Tesla and beyond came five years after the complaint was filed, and the landscape at Tesla is very different, particularly after efforts to form a union have been stymied. This story has not even touched on the Tesla employee fired for organizing that the NLRB ruled as unjustified, ordering the company to offer him his job and compensation for lost wages from the retaliation.

Musk now owns another company whose workers are not organized and could face challenges as the billionaire implements his vision. For some, his comments to AOC only raise concerns over his lack of awareness or willingness to mock attempts to protect workers from exploitative labor.


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