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Elon Musk’s 2-Sentence Response to a Perceived Snub by President Biden Reveals a Basic Truth About Effective Leadership

Years ago, when I worked for the world’s largest commercial printer, the company bought a factory in Pennsylvania with a strong union presence. I was part of a team sent to that location to help integrate that facility into the larger organization.

And also to attempt to lay the groundwork for an eventual vote by employees to decertify the union.

Which was awkward, since the rules regarding what we could and couldn’t say were clear. We couldn’t criticize the union. We couldn’t stop people from meeting. By law, we couldn’t threaten or promise or entice or imply… yet somehow we were supposed to convince employees they didn’t need a union. 

We decided (among ourselves) that safe was way better than sorry, and all we would do is answer questions if asked. About pay rates at our plant. About benefits. About overtime rules. Whatever people asked, we would tell them. That’s all we would do.

Because the rules regarding unions were, and still are, clear.

Except maybe not to Elon Musk

Or at least maybe not in the past. 

In 2019, a judge found Tesla management at the company’s Fremont, California factor guilty of a number of illegal anti-union tactics. In all, 12 actions violated U.S. labor laws. Like banning employees from wearing pro-union buttons and t-shirts. Like allowing security workers to “harass” employees distributing union pamphlets. Like repeatedly “interrogating” union organizers, firing one of them. Like moving four pro-union employees to salaried positions so they could no longer advocate on behalf of the union.

So when President Biden mentioned General Motors and Ford during his recent State of the Union address, Musk apparently felt slighted. After all, GM and Ford have a strong union presence.

Tesla does not. (In fact, Tesla recently moved some operations to Texas, a right-to-work state.) 

Sounds good: Musk openly invites the UAW, the United Autoworkers union, to hold a union vote at their convenience, and he — and Tesla — will do nothing to stop them.

But is also basically meaningless.

By law, Musk can’t do anything to stop them. Attempting to organize is their right. Musk saying “Tesla will do nothing to stop them” is like me telling Navy SEALs they can’t work out on the public beach in front of our house.

Sure, I can tell them they can’t… but I risk getting my ass kicked in response. (Not really; they’re nice guys.)

Musk can tell the union they can’t hold a vote… but he would risk getting his ass kicked by the government.

Even so, Musk’s tweet is still a good move. Where unions are concerned, his past is clearly checkered. He got in trouble for a 2018 tweet the National Labor Relations Board found to be unlawful. There’s the 2019 ruling.

Musk is famous for taking strong stands, but taking an anti-union stand is one he’s unlikely to win, whether practically or in terms of perception.

Because sometimes safe really is better than sorry.

And admitting you recognize your employees’ rights is never a bad thing to say.

The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.

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