The N-word and other racist slurs were hurled daily at Black workers at Tesla’s California plant, delivered not just by fellow employees but also by managers and supervisors.
So says California’s civil rights agency in a lawsuit filed against the electric-vehicle maker in Alameda County Superior Court on Thursday on behalf of thousands of Black workers after a decade of complaints and a 32-month investigation.
Tesla segregated Black workers into separate areas that its employees referred to as “porch monkey stations,” “the dark side,” “the slave ship” and “the plantation,” the lawsuit alleges.
Only Black workers had to scrub floors on their hands and knees, and they were relegated to the Fremont, Calif., factory’s most difficult physical jobs, the suit states.
Graffiti — including “KKK,” “Go back to Africa,” the hangman’s noose, the Confederate Flag and “F– [N-word]” — were carved into restroom walls, workplace benches and lunch tables and were slow to be erased, the lawsuit says.
Tesla responded to the lawsuit, filed by the Department of Fair Employment and Housing, with a blog post saying that the agency had investigated almost 50 discrimination complaints in the past without finding misconduct — an assertion the agency denied.
“A narrative spun by the DFEH and a handful of plaintiff firms to generate publicity is not factual proof,” the blog post said, adding that the company provides “the best paying jobs in the automotive industry … at a time when manufacturing jobs are leaving California.”
The lawsuit comes in the wake of Tesla’s billionaire chief executive, Elon Musk, moving the company’s headquarters from Palo Alto to Austin, Texas, where he is building a major new assembly plant.
The state’s lawsuit suggests the relocation to a state known for looser enforcement is no coincidence, declaring it to be “another move to avoid accountability.”
Not only were Tesla’s Black workers subjected to “willful, malicious” harassment, but they were also denied promotions and paid less than other workers for the same jobs, the suit asserted. They were disciplined for infractions for which other workers were not penalized.
In an interview, DFEH Director Kevin Kish said the lawsuit is the largest ever brought by the state for racial discrimination in terms of the size of the affected workforce since the agency gained prosecutorial powers in 2013.
Before that, complaints were handled by an agency administrative law judge rather than in court. But as more employers have forced workers to sign arbitration agreements preventing them from taking complaints to court, “government has the only effective enforcement mechanism to remedy broad pervasive violations in a workplace,” he said.
“We hear a lot about ‘structural racism.’ This case is very focused on segregation — the structural barriers to equality for Black employees,” Kish said.
Most of the agency’s complaints involve individual workers or small groups. And racial complaints are on the rise. In 2016, the agency investigated 744 cases. By 2020, that had grown to 1,548, Kish said.
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