Editorials

Legislators wouldn’t penalize Tesla for operating in California. Would they?

This image provided by Tesla Motors shows the Tesla Model 3 sedan, made in Fremont.
This image provided by Tesla Motors shows the Tesla Model 3 sedan, made in Fremont. AP

California’s last big auto manufacturer, a General Motors-Toyota joint venture, closed its Fremont factory in 2010. This year, Toyota is vacating its North American headquarters in suburban Los Angeles as it decamps to Texas.

Yet in the final week of this legislative session, lawmakers inserted language that takes aim at Tesla Motors, the upstart that builds its electric vehicles in the Fremont factory that Toyota and GM abandoned.

As legislative language goes, it’s mild. But it suggests that an automaker that runs afoul of the fine print could lose out on $140 million in rebates issued to consumers who want to help fight climate change by purchasing zero-emission vehicles.

The amendment directs the Air Resources Board to work with the Labor and Workforce Development Agency to “develop procedures for certifying” that companies that make autos that qualify for rebates are “fair and responsible in the treatment of their workers.”

Further, the Legislature’s “intent” is that the state labor secretary will “certify (auto) manufacturers as fair and responsible in the treatment of their workers” before companies’ vehicles qualify for the rebate program.

Legislators are within their rights to tie rebates to state-only standards. But the language, part of broader legislation, Assembly Bill 134, to divvy up $1.5 billion in cap-and-trade revenue, emerged in the final week of the legislative session, rarely a good sign. Why not include it in separate legislation, subject to full legislative review?

Although the bill is aimed at Tesla, the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers, which represents Ford, GM, Toyota, Fiat and others, opposes the language. The Global Automakers, which represents Nissan, called the amendment “counterproductive to building a sustainable market for zero emission vehicles.”

Counterproductive or not, Gov. Jerry Brown, the internationally recognized champion of the fight against climate change, blessed the deal, The Sacramento Bee’s Jim Miller reported.

We support treating workers fairly and responsibly. We believe Tesla probably would gain market share if it attained labor peace. But what exactly constitutes “fair and responsible” treatment? Why limit the standard to car makers? Why not include manufacturers of zero-emission buses, and bio-digesters, and any company that receives cap-and-trade revenue?

And why should lawmakers step into the middle of a labor dispute with Tesla?

If the language becomes law, California would need to enforce it equally, whether zero-emission vehicles are made in Fremont, or Michigan, or right-to-work states, or foreign countries. How state regulators here would enforce workplace standards in far-flung plants remains to be seen.

As is their right, Tesla and its founder Elon Musk are fighting the United Autoworkers’ organizing effort. The National Labor Relations Board detailed Tesla’s rough tactics in a complaint two weeks ago.

Most definitely, Musk rubs some officials here wrong. His company benefited mightily from California subsidies and from consumers’ green attitudes, but Musk located his battery factory in Nevada three years ago.

Nonetheless, Tesla employs 10,000 Californians in Fremont, unlike Toyota, GM, Ford, Nissan and all the others without factories here. It’s as if lawmakers are penalizing Tesla for operating in this state. They wouldn’t do that. Would they?

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