The labor movement needs more innovative, dynamic, worker-driven organizing campaigns with big national targets like Starbucks and Amazon — and like the newly announced union drive at Tesla.

Tesla Inc. solar panel factory in Buffalo, New York. (Andrew Harrer / Bloomberg via Getty Images)

On Tuesday, workers at a Tesla plant in Buffalo, New York, publicly launched a unionization campaign. They’re seeking to organize with Tesla Workers United, which is part of the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) affiliate Workers United.

Workers United Upstate New York is the same union that supported workers who organized with Starbucks Workers United (SBWU). SBWU won its historic first victory in Buffalo in December 2021, and it has now won at least 286 NLRB elections in thirty-six states, despite facing one of the most ferocious and unlawful anti-union campaigns in living memory. The National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) currently has 497 open or settled unfair labor practice charges against Starbucks or its anti-union law firm Littler Mendelson.

Tesla’s Gigafactory 2 facility opened in Buffalo in 2017 and now employs roughly a thousand production workers and about eight hundred “autopilot” workers, who are tasked with developing Tesla’s self-driving cars. The inside organizing campaign started among the autopilot workers toward the end of last year. It went public on Tuesday morning, and it may yet spread to the entire plant.

If the NLRB protects the workers’ choice, or if management agrees to sign Tesla Workers United’s “Fair Election Principles” document and thus offers its workers a fair choice, the unionization campaign will likely succeed. If it does, it will become the first union at multibillionaire Elon Musk’s Tesla Inc., which has crushed every previous union effort.

Buffalo: No Coincidence

Why has so much of the country’s most inspirational organizing come out of a somewhat unfashionable corner of upstate New York?

The Tesla union campaign didn’t just appear out of thin air in Buffalo. The organizing director of Workers United Upstate New York, which is headed by Gary Bonadonna, Jr, is Jaz Brisack, the twenty-five-year-old leader who was one of the founding members of SBWU. Other key members of the Starbucks union campaign have also been involved in the organizing at Tesla. Long-time organizer Richard Bensinger, founder of the AFL-CIO’s Organizing Institute and veteran of hundreds of organizing campaigns, has also helped the Tesla union campaign, as have several other SBWU organizers, including its communications director, twenty-six-year-old Starbucks worker-organizer Casey Moore.

Bonadonna’s leadership of Workers United Upstate New York has been critically important. Bonadonna had the foresight to support the fledgling Starbucks union campaign when no national union leader in the country showed interest in the formidable task. Bonadonna also provided innovative young worker-organizers sufficient elbow room to run their own campaign and maintain their rank-and-file dynamism.

The Starbucks campaign flourished in large part thanks to the local autonomy enjoyed by Bonadonna, his organizing team, and Starbucks workers in Buffalo. The movement they fostered in their corner of the woods became an inspiration, sparking a nationwide initiative. Now it’s also paying dividends back home in Buffalo, where the same ethos of local autonomy extends to Tesla Workers United, promising a vibrant organizing campaign at one of the world’s wealthiest anti-union corporations.

No Such Thing as an Unorganizable Workplace

Bonadonna has taken the view that no organizing campaign is too big or too small for Workers United Upstate New York. In addition to the headline-grabbing Starbucks and Tesla campaigns, the union has recently organized dozens of workers at two branches of Buffalo’s Lexington Co-op grocery store and at the small coffee chain Remedy House. Prior to the Starbucks campaign, Workers United Upstate New York had helped workers unionize at SPoT coffee in Buffalo (the country’s largest union coffee chain before the recent Starbucks wave), at Gimme! Coffee in Ithaca, and at Pavement coffee in Boston and Cambridge.

Workers United Upstate New York’s dynamic approach is just what the labor movement needs. Young workers in particular are proving eager for bolder leadership, which, with a few notable exceptions (such as the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union’s courageous campaign at Amazon in Bessemer, Alabama), the labor establishment has failed to provide. Along with the recently formed independent unions Amazon Labor Union and Trader Joe’s United, Workers United Upstate New York has inspired more self-organizing activity among young workers, and created more optimism in the labor movement more broadly, than any other union in several decades.

These unions have won NLRB elections at some of the country’s most notorious anti-union firms, corporations which seemed utterly invincible just a couple of years ago. But they have done more than just win campaigns that were considered unwinnable. They have also put union busting on the front pages of the national media month after month.

Union Busting on the Front Page

The mountain of positive coverage of Starbucks and Amazon (and now Tesla) workers’ organizing efforts has rankled the nation’s most powerful anti-union organizations. At a recent meeting of the National Restaurant Association (NRA), one “union avoidance” lawyer with Jackson Lewis, the nation’s third largest anti-union law firm, complained: “The New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, every newspaper reports on every union win . . . when an unfair labor practice charge is filed, when there are challenges to elections. . . . When did this become first page news?” Her colleague added: “And guess who’s reading it?  My kids. Literally. I have an eighteen-year-old, my kids are into it.”

The union campaigns at Starbucks and Amazon put union busting on the front pages of the New York Times, Washington Post, and Wall Street Journal. It wouldn’t have happened without them. Moreover, the media focus on Starbucks and Amazon has injected a unique vividness and concreteness into the fight over union representation, something the established union movement has been unable to do, as was painfully apparent during the failed campaign for labor law reform during Barack Obama’s and Joe Biden’s administrations. Labor’s hierarchy still appears unsure of how to take advantage of this remarkable coverage.

The worker-driven nature of the organizing successes at Starbucks has been critically important to attracting positive media coverage, with rank-and-file workers playing a key role in every aspect of their campaigns. At the recent NRA meeting, one Jackson Lewis lawyer commented, “How does Kentucky have a unionized [coffee shop]? The answer is because it’s a social issue. And it’s done by the employees, not by the unions.”

Even scarier to anti-union organizations is the notion that established unions might be able to figure out how to support, encourage, and facilitate that type of worker self-organizing campaign across industries. Especially in its first several months, Starbucks Workers United combined dynamic worker self-organizing with the right kind of relationship with an established union leader in Bonadonna. The Tesla organizing drive is starting off with a similar combination.

The labor movement nationally benefits enormously when workers have the courage to take on companies like Tesla. It desperately needs dozens more of these kinds of innovative, worker-driven organizing campaigns. The Tesla Workers United campaign might even encourage the United Auto Workers, which may be about to get new national leadership, to start a renewed organizing campaign at the original Tesla in Fremont, California.

Just like Starbucks Workers United did, Tesla Workers United could offer a model for union revitalization in the United States.

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