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Tesla slams Reveal News as “extremist” after exposé on alleged factory improprieties

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Reveal News, a non-profit organization based in Emeryville, California, published a story Monday concluding that Tesla “has failed to report some of its serious injuries on legally mandated reports, making the company’s injury numbers look better than they actually are.”

In turn, Tesla retorted Monday that Reveal is an “extremist organization working directly with union supporters,” adding that the story “paints a completely false picture of Tesla and what it is actually like to work here.”

Ars specifically asked Tesla CEO Elon Musk on Twitter whether he agreed with the use of the phrase “extremist organization” and under what criteria he makes such an assessment. He did not reply. We also put the same question to Tesla spokespeople, who similarly did not respond.

Reveal’s story also concludes—based on what it described as interviews with “more than three dozen current and former employees and managers,” combined with “hundreds of pages of documents”—that Tesla “has put its manufacturing of electric cars above safety concerns, according to five former members of its environment, healthy, and safety team who left the company last year.”

Tesla, for its part, added that it aims to be the “safest factory on Earth.” The company added that “despite going through extreme challenges building an entirely new Model 3 production system, we nonetheless reduced our injury rate by 25 percent.”

On Wednesday, the California Occupational Safety and Health Administration told Reuters that a probe of Tesla had begun on Tuesday in the wake of Reveal’s report.

Coincidentally, Tesla’s Fremont factory is just 35 miles south of Reveal’s offices.

“The report suggests Tesla doesn’t accurately track injuries or that we mislabeled or undercounted injuries to make our record look better than it actually is,” the Monday blog post from Tesla continues. “We believe in transparency and would never intentionally misrepresent our safety record to our employees or the public.”

It is undisputed, however, that Tesla has set ambitious goals for itself. By the end of June 2018, the company promised that it would be rolling 5,000 Model 3s off of the Fremont assembly line each week. Just six months ago, Musk himself said the company was in “production hell.”

After reading the dueling accounts, Ars sent a list of 10 questions to Tesla, which declined to respond on the record.

“We’ve provided multiple lengthy and detailed statements, both specifically in response to the Reveal piece and more broadly about our safety efforts, so we’ve said the extent of what we’re going to say on-the-record,” Dave Arnold, a Tesla spokesman, emailed.

Bob and weave

In response to our list of follow-up questions, however, Tesla did not always directly respond or respond clearly.

Specifically, we asked what had changed since Musk’s comments in 2014 to the San Francisco Chronicle that the company was “neutral” on the question of unionization of its labor force. Tesla’s new statement about Reveal (“an extremist organization working directly with union supporters”) suggests that it is actually antagonistic toward unions.

The company insisted that nothing has changed in this viewpoint, noting that the United Autoworkers (UAW)—which has been trying to unionize in Fremont—is apparently not in synch with corporate values. Tesla did not explain why.

Ars also specifically asked Tesla, “in a 2017 blog post, [Tesla] appears to blame UAW for the prior closure of NUMMI (which was ‘under the stewardship of the UAW’). What role does Tesla believe that the UAW had in that situation?”

NUMMI was the prior name for what is now the Fremont Tesla Factory when that facility was jointly operated by GM and Toyota from 1984 until its closure in 2010.

Tesla, in turn, said that it was merely a fact that the plant closed while “under the stewardship of the UAW.” However, as far as Ars is aware, the union had no role in the decision to close NUMMI.

We also specifically asked about Musk’s 2017 promise to work directly on the factory floor. As we wrote: “Did Musk perform factory tasks as promised last year? If so, which ones? What did he learn from the experience? Does he plan on repeating this experience?”

Tesla simply confirmed that he did so (“Yes”), while at first ignoring our other questions. When we attempted to follow up further, the company simply pointed us to Musk’s comments in a company-wide email that was previously published by Electrek.

“Going forward, I’ve asked that every injury be reported directly to me, without exception,” Musk wrote in May 2017.

“I’m meeting with the safety team every week and would like to meet every injured person as soon as they are well so that I can understand from them exactly what we need to do to make it better. I will then go down to the production line and perform the same task that they perform.”

In its Monday blog post, Tesla also said that some of its employees felt “harassed” by Reveal reporters.

We asked Tesla: “How many expressed this view? By what means did they express this discomfort? Was this logged anywhere? Would they be willing to speak with Ars directly to share their experience?”

The company declined to answer and only referred us again back to its Monday blog post.

Finally, we asked about how the blog post mentions the use of an “anonymous company survey” where “our production employees overwhelmingly agreed that the company values were their health, safety, and well-being.”

Specifically, we asked: “Would Tesla provide us with both the questions and responses to this survey and include a detailed description of its methodology?”

The company said that more than 30,000 employees responded to its annual, anonymous survey, which included dozens of questions. (As of December 31, 2017, Tesla had more than 37,500 employees, according to its most recent annual report filed with the Securities and Exchange Commission.) One of those questions asked whether employees agreed with a statement expressing the company’s commitment to health, safety, and well-being.

Tesla noted that 82 percent of all employees and 84 percent of its Fremont “production associates” agreed with this statement.

However, the electric-car maker did not provide any further examples of survey questions, results, or any description of the survey’s methodology.

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