I wrote about the predictability of management in my last post, and have been immediately rewarded with a perfect real-world example. I hope I get a free Tesla out of this.
I sketched out a basic union strategy - in order to polarize the workers, just prod management a bit and they will often lash out. In unions there is even a saying for this:
The Boss is the Best Organizer
Elon Musk over at Tesla has been kind enough to create a perfect example. All I know is what I read on Buzzfeed, but it looks like he walked directly into a trap. UAW is probing Tesla to see if it's a good target to organize. One of the employees put up a piece on medium detailing some complaints. Now I'm not there and I can't say that this was part of UAW's strategy, but if it wasn't it should have been. Maybe lots of the staff at Tesla complain about their jobs in essays online, I don't know.
In a move that surprised no one at UAW but pleased them all, Elon sent out a long wall-of-text email full of reasons why the employee's complaints are bogus. The union prods, the Boss reacts. Stimulus, response. Stimulus, response. Here's a hint: you want to be on the stimulus side, not the response side.
Let's look at this from UAW's perspective. What did they get out of this?
1) The CEO is arguing in public with a presumably injured employee. That's a hideous mistake, both intrinsically and rhetorically.
2) I can't believe he promised them free frozen yogurt.
3) Whoever wants to call him a bully now has plenty of ammunition.
4) I guarantee that UAW organizers have told their activists that management will say the UAW's tactics are dishonest and underhanded. Very possibly they are. It's been known to happen. Nonetheless, By fulfilling that prophecy in his email, Elon has actually helped to build more trust between UAW organizers and their activists, while diminishing the employees' trust in him. I wonder if that's what he meant to do?
5) I still can't believe he promised them free frozen yogurt.
6) And a little Richie-Rich train set that will go all around the parking lots. The factory workers I'm familiar with would dynamite that nonsense by noon on the first day before they'd ride on it. But I was raised in Oklahoma, not California.
7) He did his own internal investigation that showed nothing is wrong. Doubtless that was a wise thing to do for other internal reasons, but it will convince few of the agitated workers of anything except that he rigged the investigation. What won't he do?
8) He gave UAW ton of pull-quotes for the next flier. Actually, they have enough quotes for all the fliers they'll ever need.
9) Also, a tremendous number of ideas for buttons and T-shirts.
10) Whatever the workplace complaints were before his email, now he is manufacturing them himself, faster than they're making those Model 3's from the sound of it.
See how well the union's strategy works? Even if the union had to gin-up the first round of complaints, the chain reaction has started.
The frozen yogurt and the train set are not bad in themselves, obviously. Well, I don't know about the train set. The problem is that however it was meant, the UAW organizers will not have any kind of difficulty portraying his response as trivializing the workers' complaints and insulting their intelligence. When they meet with the organizers they will be talking about what they love and hate on the job. They'll be talking about democracy in the workplace and about dignity and rights and being taken seriously.
And then the poster-sized reproduction of his email will come out, trivializing their complaints. It will be framed like this: "See how stupid he thinks you are? He thinks if he gives you an ice cream cone you'll forget about [insert workplace issues here]. He's treating you like a 6-year old." How do you think that's going to go down? This is what it means to be demonized.
The truth is that even without union organizers prompting them, employees who have real workplace complaints are not easily distracted by ice cream and pizza parties. They want the problems addressed.
What's the solution for Tesla now? Choose from among bad alternatives, because all the good solutions are in the past. Create a structure that will allow them to safely voice complaints, and build trust by actually acting on those complaints. Give up some power and control by letting your employees make important decisions. Have a strategy to engage your employees and keep them engaged so you'll know when the temperature is rising. Now is probably too late for all that but it's still the best way to go. He could start listening, in person, on the shop floor. And don't tell the employees their complaints are wrong.
Like Fast Eddie Felson in the Hustler, unions are in love with the inspirational loss, so if he does the right thing now, UAW might find a way to implode. Or Tesla could go to the mat in a bitter fight with UAW and Tesla's own employees, proving they have really made it into Big Auto.
Organizing is hard work. The union generally won't win without a lot of help from management. I hope UAW is paying for that frozen yogurt.