Owen Diaz worked as a contract elevator operator at Tesla’s factory in Fremont, California, for a little under a year. During his stint, he dealt with and witnessed constant racism, offensive images on the bathroom walls, and profanity-laced taunts like “go back to Africa.”
His supervisors failed to help, so he turned to the courts. His lawsuit accused Tesla of using a fake, progressive image to veil its “regressive, demeaning treatment of African-American employees.” In late 2021, the courts agreed, awarding him $137 million. Diaz celebrated the victory—but pointed out he wasn’t alone.
“It’s God’s justice that this happened, you know, and allowed me to talk for people who can’t talk for themselves,” Diaz said. “They have to choose to either take the abuse that these billion-dollar companies are putting out or feed their families,”
Bernard Alexander is a partner at Alexander Morrison + Fehr LLP and one of the attorneys who tried Diaz’s case. He explained to Prism that Tesla tried to argue that, since Diaz was a contractor, they couldn’t address the racism he faced—but this was false.
“Tesla actively controlled the conduct and staffing but was looking the other way,” he said. Tesla did intervene to address hostile conduct for others related to gender, “but when it was the use of the n-word and race, they were disinterested in taking any action to correct the conduct.”
Alexander also represents another Black employee in a separate case who is suing Tesla for racial discrimination. At a workplace where the n-word is commonly used, he said there’s often preferential treatment for non-Black workers. But, not everyone who experiences discrimination can sue because of work contracts and arbitration agreements.
Those workers could soon find some justice. In February 2022, California’s Department of Fair Employment and Housing (DFEH) sued Tesla over racial segregation, harassment, and violence. The lawsuit followed hundreds of Black workers filing complaints between 2015-19, information from civil rights attorneys, and years of investigations.
Tesla’s Fremont factory is a minority-majority workforce: 60% of the Fremont factory are people of color. But despite the demographics, the experiences of Tesla’s Black workers are harrowing. Forced to work in a separate area, casually referred to as “the plantation” or “the slave ship” by other workers, employees say they are treated more harshly than lighter-skinned counterparts.
Despite their large numbers, people of color are “segregated to the lowest levels,” according to the lawsuit against Tesla. BIPOC make up 0% of executives at Tesla, and they are overrepresented on the factory floor and as contractors. They do more physically demanding work and have been refused opportunities to advance their careers. While facing these conditions, they also hear taunts and see aggressive, racist graffiti by other workers and even supervisors.
It’s a far cry from the image that Tesla tries to portray as a social innovator, building a clean, ethical, and renewable future, with the lawsuit commenting: “Tesla’s brand, purportedly highlighting a socially conscious future, masks the reality of a company that profits from an army of production workers, many of whom are people of color, working under egregious conditions.”
“We hear a lot about ‘structural racism.’ This case is very focused on segregation—the structural barriers to equality for Black employees,” DFEH Director Kevin Kish said.
Tesla situated in the car industry
The lawsuits highlight ongoing structural barriers for people of color and other marginalized people, like women, LGBTQ+ employees, and the disabled in the automotive industry—connecting Tesla to the long tradition of exploitation on the factory floor.
Tesla’s competitors have also paid millions in discrimination suits or are currently being sued. A few years ago at a GM factory in Michigan, Black workers say they faced racial slurs and nooses at work. Even Honda has gone to court over pervasive racial discrimination faced by staff.
And it’s not just racial discrimination: Racial and gay slurs and discrimination forced Damier Trucks to pay out $2.4 million to aggrieved employees in 2019. Ford had to pay $10 million in 2017 because of racial and sexual harassment in two factories. Mitsubishi Motors settled a sexual harassment case for $34 million dollars in 1998 over a case involving 350 female workers. The year before, Mitsubishi Motors separately paid $10 million for a similar case brought by 29 female employees.
In November, more than 30 Ford factory employees filed a lawsuit, alleging groping, attempted rape, and retaliation for reporting actions. For women of color, it was amplified: Black women reported seeing graffiti of Black women performing oral sex on white men and were given less desirable jobs and hours compared to white, female coworkers.
An industry with a long history
During the automotive industry’s peak in the 1940s, ’50s, and ’60s, the prospect of a job brought workers of all races to the Midwest, home to a key industry that helped build the country’s economy. But from the onset, discrimination halted progress in the industry.
“It was impossible for workers of color—especially Black workers—to enter the skilled trades; the top 10% of blue-collar jobs,” said Kevin Boyle, professor of history at Northwestern University.
“There were factories where African Americans couldn’t work at all, and others where they were hired for lower-skilled jobs, in the foundries, furnace rooms, stock chasers or sweepers, janitors—but not production.”
Black workers and other workers of color fought for their rights and other workers’ rights —at work and in their union, the United Auto Workers. During the civil rights era and beyond, Black workers actively shaped their workplace and the industry by being part of it and advocating for fairness.
“They were linked together in a movement that recognizes that the fight for civil rights and economic justice are tied,” Boyle said.
As case after case is brought against Tesla, the car company is proving to be yet another automotive company turning a blind eye to its staff’s struggles at work, all while fighting to keep them out of the courts and out of a union.
These cases form part of the industry’s ongoing struggle to treat workers fairly and safely, leaving employees to advocate for themselves and each other. At least this time, with the DFEH case, they have some support from the state.
“The state is in a position to address the people inside of the factory controlled by arbitration agreements and seek justice in some form against Tesla,” Alexander said. “And force it to have a workplace that approaches being an equitable and not a hostile work environment based on race.”