Electric Road Trip

At Tesla, it's the people to watch

FREMONT, Calif. — The Electric Road Trip was somewhere in the middle of the Tesla factory, on a tram car piloted by our tour guide and color commentator, when we heard a high-pitched squeak from one of the assembly lines.

"That is the sound of robots building cars," she said into her headset.

We saw robots, lots of robots: bulging, candy apple-red appendages with names like Xavier and Angel that darted in to pull panels from the booming mouth of a press.

We also saw lots of people at work on the assembly lines.

One problem Tesla has apparently not inherited from the traditional automakers is serious conflicts with its own workforce. Of course, there's a reason for that. Tesla workers aren't unionized. And management under CEO Elon Musk has reportedly made sure it stays that way. A National Labor Relations Board judge ruled last month that Tesla had threatened workers and tried to stifle in-house unionization campaigns.

Musk has placed big demands on employees in the past, as the company raced against self-imposed production deadlines. The demands of Wall Street and Tesla's share valuation nip at the company's heels every quarter. And every quarter now, there's renewed pressure to sell more luxury electric vehicles to make up for the lower-priced Model 3.

Later today, Tesla is expected to report its third-quarter earnings after the bell. Analysts are looking for whether it can return to profits amid the shifting balance of higher-priced and lower-priced car sales.

Tesla increasingly straddles the worlds of Silicon Valley and traditional automakers. Silicon Valley is historically anti-union. But Tesla is a few years away from direct competition with Ford and General Motors for supremacy in a broad consumer market where some customers will care how the company treats its workers.

The merging of large-scale auto manufacturing with the disruptive mentality that built Tesla is already changing the company's relationship with its employees.

It wasn't totally lost on us during our tour that Tesla acquired the Fremont plant from GM and Toyota for a ludicrously low sum in 2010. GM was selling off assets. Unions had helped bail out the company by agreeing to major wage concessions.

Workers are now trying to claw back some of those concessions from GM. And they're taking a hard look at Tesla.

Electric Road Trip

E&E News reporters take a 6,000-mile road trip in an electric vehicle to explore how the switch from gas to electric transportation will change the economy, environment and daily life of America.
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