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

An aerial see demonstrates the Tesla Fremont Manufacturing facility in Fremont, California on February 10, 2022.

Josh Edelson | AFP | Getty Images

In 2017 and 2018, as some workers sought to sort a union at the Tesla factory in Fremont, California, Elon Musk’s electrical car company was paying a consultancy, MWW PR, to keep track of staff in a Fb group and additional broadly on social media, according to invoices and other files reviewed by CNBC.

Two matters that MWW PR watched carefully were discussions alleging unfair labor procedures at Tesla, and about a sexual harassment lawsuit, according to the documents describing their get the job done.

While the information confirming Tesla’s surveillance of personnel on the net are many years old, they maintain new relevance for observers trying to get bigger being familiar with of CEO Elon Musk’s priorities the place social media is concerned.

Musk a short while ago struck a $44 billion settlement to buy Twitter, the social network he has relied on for a long time to endorse his providers and mock or criticize perceived enemies, which include limited-sellers, whistleblowers, the UAW, journalists, and elected officers in the Democratic occasion. He is envisioned to grow to be interim CEO of Twitter if the deal is finished.

The data present that Tesla paid MWW PR to watch a Tesla worker Fb team, check Fb a lot more broadly for commentary on arranging initiatives, and to conduct investigate specifically on organizers, likely on to establish labor conversation strategies, media lists, and pitches based mostly on their reconnaissance.

A world wide communications director for Tesla through the time, Dave Arnold, had ties to the PR and consulting company the automaker hired to do this work. He was used at MWW for about 4 years from 2011 as a result of 2015 as a vice president, adhering to a stint as as a communications director for former Rep. Anthony Weiner (D-N.Y.) in accordance to a push release from MWW saying his hire.

Tesla and Elon Musk have clashed with union proponents for several years. In 2017, Tesla fired a union activist named Richard Ortiz and in 2018, Musk tweeted a comment uncovered to have violated federal labor legislation. The Nationwide Labor Relations Board ordered Tesla to reinstate Ortiz and to have Musk delete his tweet, which they mentioned threatened workers’ compensation. Tesla has appealed the administrative court’s ruling and his tweet continues to be.

Musk has criticized several Democratic elected officials which include President Joe Biden for their professional-union sights. He lately reported he plans to vote Republican in impending elections simply because “the Democratic Social gathering is extremely managed by the unions” and class-motion attorneys. Tesla’s factories in Texas and California have never ever held union elections.

A spokesperson for MWW PR advised CNBC:

“MWW consulted with Tesla in 2017-2018 on a wide worker communications engagement throughout a interval of immediate expansion at the Enterprise.  It is a widespread apply to critique media coverage and community social dialogue about a organization to attain insights into troubles and perceptions of stakeholders about the model.”

Arnold and Tesla did not respond to requests for comment.

‘Social listening’ vs surveillance

There are justifiable good reasons why providers hold an eye on what their employees put up publicly on-line, according to John Villasenor, a professor at UCLA and fellow at Brookings Institute whose investigation focuses on the impression of technological know-how on culture, law and public plan.

He mentioned, Suppose you have an personnel likely online and issuing all sorts of racist statements publicly. You could argue it would be in a firm’s fascination to know that. If a particular person is indicating things that specifically implicate their conditioning to be an staff, you would want to know that and you are not able to just say it can be none of our company.”

Crucially, Villasenor pointed out, there are also bright ethical lines that really should not be crossed when it comes to accessing employees’ social media profiles and posts.

Jennifer M. Grygiel, a Syracuse University associate professor whose study focuses on propaganda and social media, informed CNBC firms must chorus from any action that interferes with worker’s rights, precisely their legal rights to focus on, sort or sign up for a union.

“Any corporation can interact in ‘social listening,’ applying publicly out there social media information to get insights for item development, or to recognize voters, public and staff sentiment and more,” Grygiel reported. “But there are laws in the US that safeguard the rights of folks to organize. If you are a PR organization, or a manager who has to infiltrate a semi-private team? That’s dishonest. And I question Tesla would ship a PR organization to figure out how to aid staff associated in organizing.”

A few men and women who were Tesla workforce in Fremont in 2018 explained to CNBC they have been warned by colleagues not to url to their bosses on social networks, nor to sign up for Tesla worker teams on social media, except they realized every one person in the team, which includes the administrator running it, and experienced a say in excess of who would be invited to be a part of. Two some others who do the job for the company these days reported staff members believe that Tesla keeps a close look at on their social media posts.

Internally, staff chat in a quantity of teams, like on Mattermost (an open up-supply chat merchandise) and Groups (the video clip conferencing platform from Microsoft) but Tesla does not use Facebook’s Place of work and did not in 2018, these men and women mentioned.

Tesla’s existing communications policy, acquired by CNBC, suggests that professionals should really not access subordinates’ web pages on social networks unless of course there’s a distinctive small business motive why they should do so. The policy also discourages workers from speaking out on the internet about work troubles, and cautions:

“You are additional probable to take care of considerations about function by speaking immediately with your co-personnel, supervisor or other administration staff, or by calling your Human Resources Spouse or accessing Tesla’s Integrity Line, than by submitting considerations on the World wide web.”

Present and former staff members who spoke with CNBC about Tesla’s use of social networks asked to keep on being un-named, as they experienced not been licensed to speak to push or had signed non-disclosure agreements barring them from making critical public statements about Tesla.