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Reopening at any cost: Elon Musk’s latest gambit puts lives of employees at risk
Elon Musk, the chief executive of the carmaker Tesla, is something different to everyone. For having mass-produced cool all-electric vehicles, he has been a hero to coastal environmentalist liberals.
Small-government conservatives have lionised him for thumbing his nose at regulators. Online, his exhortations can cause markets to shudder or soar and prompt lawsuits and investigations.
Politically, he’s a man of contradictions. His companies — Tesla, SpaceX and SolarCity — have received billions of dollars in public subsidies to build factories and lower the cost of car ownership through rebates. On the other hand, he has railed against big government and has also publicly rebuked President Trump for backing out of the Paris climate accord.
Now he’s inserting himself into the broader debate over how and when the economy should start opening. And his latest gambit — forcing some 10,000 Bay Area workers back on the job in defiance of the law — may permanently align him with Trump in the eyes of the public.
The showdown began this month, when Musk said he planned to reopen the Fremont manufacturing plant in violation of local health orders. When authorities balked, he sued and threatened to move company headquarters to the more business-friendly confines of Texas or Nevada.
Late last month, Musk made clear his disdain for government enforcement of shelter-in-place orders, describing them as “fascist” and “forcibly imprisoning people,” amid an expletive-laden earnings call with investors. “This is not freedom. Give people back their … freedom,” he said. Last Tuesday he opened the factory and dared officials to arrest him, while insulting Alameda County’s public health chief as “ignorant.” Never mind that county officials were going to allow him to reopen this week. And demand for large purchases like cars have slumped as record numbers have filed for unemployment.
So why risk reputational harm and the health of thousands of factory line workers for just a few extra days of production, especially at a time when new-car sales are sharply lower? For one, Musk is winning new high-profile admirers. Last week, he earned the support of Trump, the President’s son Eric Trump, Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin and a host of venture capitalists for his reopening crusade. He praised the president on a private call with other chief executives and voiced his desire to reopen the factory by May 1. Musk thanked the president in a tweet, of course.
Any association with Trump threatens to damage Musk’s reputation with those on the left. Nearly 40 per cent of Tesla owners identified as left-leaning as of 2019, up from 23 per cent in 2015. That compares with just 29 per cent last year, up from 22 per cent in 2015, who identify as right-leaning. He may see an opportunity to grow his buyer market in the middle of the country. The Tesla Cybertruck, with its jagged edges and aggressive styling, looks to appeal more to the Schwarzenegger set than the Prius one.
Any business that opens up amid the uncertainty of the coronavirus outbreak would at a minimum need to follow the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s guidelines for workplace safety. But Tesla workers have already expressed concerns about lax enforcement of social distancing and mask-wearing, and others have said they’ve been warned they could lose their jobs if they don’t come to work. Failing to heed the advice of health authorities has produced disastrous results at meat producers, warehouses, nursing homes and grocery stores.
— Bensinger is a member of the editorial board of NYT©2020
The New York Times