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

In 2017 and 2018, as some employees sought to kind a union on the Tesla manufacturing unit in Fremont, California, Elon Musk’s electrical automobile firm was paying a consultancy, MWW PR, to monitor employees in a Facebook group and extra broadly on social media, in accordance to invoices and different paperwork reviewed by CNBC.

Two issues that MWW PR watched intently had been discussions alleging unfair labor practices at Tesla, and a couple of sexual harassment lawsuit, in accordance to the paperwork describing their work.

While the information confirming Tesla’s surveillance of employees on-line are years outdated, they maintain new relevance for observers searching for higher understanding of CEO Elon Musk’s priorities the place social media is anxious.

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

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

A worldwide communications director for Tesla through the time, Dave Arnold, had ties to the PR and consulting firm the automaker employed to do that work. He was employed at MWW for about 4 years from 2011 via 2015 as a vp, following a stint as as a communications director for former Rep. Anthony Weiner (D-N.Y.) in accordance to a press launch 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 legal guidelines. The National 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 Party is overly controlled by the unions” and class-action attorneys. Tesla’s factories in Texas and California have by no means held union elections.

A spokesperson for MWW PR instructed CNBC:

“MWW consulted with Tesla in 2017-2018 on a broad employee communications engagement during a period of rapid growth at the Company.  It is a common practice to review media coverage and public social conversation about a company to gain insights into issues and perceptions of stakeholders about the brand.”

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

‘Social listening’ vs surveillance

There are justifiable explanation why firms maintain an eye fixed on what their employees publish publicly on-line, in accordance to John Villasenor, a professor at UCLA and fellow at Brookings Institute whose analysis focuses on the affect of know-how on society, regulation and public coverage.

He stated, Suppose you have an employee going online and issuing all sorts of racist statements publicly. You could argue it would be in a company’s interest to know that. If a person is saying things that directly implicate their fitness to be an employee, you would want to know that and you cannot just say it’s none of our business.”

Crucially, Villasenor famous, there are additionally vibrant moral traces that shouldn’t be crossed when it comes to accessing employees’ social media profiles and posts.

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

“Any organization can engage in ‘social listening,’ using publicly available social media data to gain insights for product development, or to understand voters, public and employee sentiment and more,” Grygiel stated. “But there are laws in the US that protect the rights of people to organize. If you’re a PR firm, or a manager who has to infiltrate a semi-private group? That’s dishonest. And I doubt Tesla would send a PR firm to figure out how to support workers involved in organizing.”

Three individuals who had been Tesla employees in Fremont in 2018 instructed CNBC they had been warned by colleagues not to hyperlink to their bosses on social networks, nor to be a part of Tesla worker teams on social media, until they knew each single particular person in the group, together with the administrator working it, and had a say over who can be invited to be a part of. Two others who work for the corporate in the present day stated employees assume that Tesla retains a detailed watch on their social media posts.

Internally, employees chat in quite a few teams, together with on Mattermost (an open-source chat product) and Teams (the video conferencing platform from Microsoft) however Tesla doesn’t use Facebook’s Workplace and didn’t in 2018, these folks 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 motive why they have to accomplish that. The coverage additionally discourages employees from talking out on-line about work points, and cautions:

“You are more likely to resolve concerns about work by speaking directly with your co-workers, supervisor or other management personnel, or by contacting your Human Resources Partner or accessing Tesla’s Integrity Line, than by posting concerns on the Internet.”

Current and former employees who spoke with CNBC about Tesla’s use of social networks requested to stay un-named, as they’d not been approved to communicate to press or had signed non-disclosure agreements barring them from making crucial public statements about Tesla.


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