Tesla sign on building with cars parked underneath

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Court rules Tesla employees can’t wear pro-union shirts to work

The NLRB had previously upheld their right to wear the shirts as they tried to unionize Elon Musk’s factory


Marlon Ettinger


An opinion published by the United States Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit yesterday overturned a 2022 ruling by the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) that let employees in a Tesla branch wear United Auto Workers (UAW) T-shirts as part of an organizing drive by the union in Tesla’s General Assembly plant in Fremont, California.

After UAW filed a successful unfair labor practice charge against the Tesla when it threatened to send employees home for wearing the union T-shirts, the company appealed the decision to the Fifth Circuit, which has jurisdiction over Louisiana, Texas, and Mississippi. 

The new ruling claimed that the 2022 NLRB ruling violated Tesla’s dress code policy and would make all company dress code policies presumptively unlawful.

That 2022 ruling held that “wearing union insignia, whether a button or a T-shirt, is a critical form of protected communication.”

They found that Tesla would allow employees to wear their own black T-shirts while on the job if approved by supervisors, but not the union shirts, and were therefore unlawful.

The new ruling by the Fifth Circuit contradicted that idea. Employees who work at Tesla’s plant, known as the GA for short, are given four black shirts and a sweater with the Tesla logo when they start working there, which is called “Team wear.”

According to the new ruling, when Tesla employees started wearing the black cotton UAW shirts in Spring 2017, Tesla tolerated it at first.

After a few months though, the company started enforcing its production standards to the letter. That meant that all clothes were required to be “mutilation free,” meaning without anything which would cause “abrasions, buffs, chips, cuts, dents, dings, or scratches to the inside or outside of a vehicle.” Suddenly, the union t-shirts were no longer allowed.

Critics say leaning on production safety conditions were just a pretext to crack down on unionization efforts.

“Tesla adopted its uniform policy in 2017 to help kill an organizing campaign by the UAW,” reported More Perfect Union, a non-profit left-wing newsroom. “Company leaders also illegally interrogated, disciplined and fired workers who wanted to unionize, federal investigators found.”

But the Fifth Circuit denied that the shirt ban had any negative effect on the organizing campaign, saying that the company still allowed workers to wear UAW and union organization stickers on its company-issued uniforms.

UAW has had its sights set on Tesla’s Fremont plant for years.

“We can beat anybody,” union president Shawn Fain said recently. “I believe it’s doable.”

Tesla CEO Elon Musk has railed against unionization efforts at the plant though, calling them “morally outrageous” and going after an employee, Jose Moran, who tried to organize the plant in 2017, reported Jacobin.

In 2019, a California judge ruled that Tesla and Musk had violated U.S. labor laws for sabotaging a unionization effort at the plant.

One tweet from Musk in 2018 said that unionization would have employees “giv[ing] up stock options for nothing.” The judge ruled that he’d have to delete that tweet, but the decision has been appealed, and the tweet is still up.

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