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Elon Musk Thinks His Treatment of Workers Is a “Trade Secret”

A wonky California legislative fight is a test of whether green jobs will be good jobs, too.

Joe Raedle/Getty Images

Leave it to Elon Musk and his ilk to show that paying companies to create good, green jobs is easier said than done. Right now, his companies are opposing a California bill that will allow the public to access data on wages, benefits, and working conditions that they already provide to the state as a condition of public subsidy and procurement contracts. From the Green New Deal to Joe Biden’s campaign platform, any measures proposing to pay corporations to create well-paid clean energy jobs would need public oversight to ensure follow-through. But as this tense, wonky fight in the Californian statehouse is showing, even the greenest parts of Corporate America may not be up for such transparency.

Until now, companies with state and local contracts in California have claimed that wages, working conditions, and other hiring and employment information constitute proprietary “trade secrets” exempt from state disclosure rules and the California Public Records Act, or CPRA. Senate Bill 749 aims to close that loophole, making the information companies already provide to state agencies as a condition of public subsidies and procurement contracts subject to public records requests. The bill was too far down the docket to come up for a vote before the state’s legislative session drew to a close Monday. In a statement sent to The New Republic, State Senator and SB 749 sponsor María Elena Durazo said she was “disheartened” but indicated an intention to press forward in the next legislative session, which begins in early December. “I still firmly believe in the need for increased transparency when public dollars are awarded to companies in California.”

SB 749 clarifies that such information as hiring practices, wages, and health and safety information is not, in fact, a trade secret and should be subject to public records requests. The bill has been strongly backed by state unions. “These subsidies and incentives are provided by tax dollars and public programs, and as such there should be accountability to ensure the employers are taking the high road to provide good-paying jobs to Californians,” Gretchen Newsom, political director for International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 569, said in a statement.

Opposition to SB 749 has been led by the California Manufacturers Technology Association, a trade lobby including Musk’s Tesla, as well as the California Chamber of Commerce, SpaceX, and several defense contractors, including Raytheon and Northrop Grumman. In addition to complaints about making alleged trade secrets public, they’ve argued through public letters and calls to legislators that such rules could require companies to disclose “potentially dangerous information related to the supply chains, staffing, and even the location of specific projects with national defense implications,” according to a floor alert about SB 749 sent to legislators by groups opposed to the bill. But the state’s public records rules already include several protections against disclosing information with national security implications, which aren’t under the purview of the trade secrets loopholes contested by SB 749.

“SB 749 is a narrow approach to increasing access to public information about public contracts and providing transparency in how hundreds of millions in taxpayer dollars are spent,” said Fredy Ceja, communications director for Durazo. “This bill would make clear that information in a public contract—in the possession of a public agency—pertaining to job creation, job quality, and job retention, as well as Buy America laws compliance, is not a trade secret” under the CPRA.

In the last decade, California has adopted a range of policies to incentivize and scale up clean energy throughout the state, from public transit to the power sector to electric vehicles, to meet its target of net-zero carbon emissions by midcentury. Elon Musk’s companies have benefited from this economy-wide push. Tesla, for instance, collected at least $100 million worth of sales tax exemptions under the California Alternative Energy and Advanced Transportation Financing Authority, a program created in 2009 to encourage renewable energy development throughout the state. SpaceX and SolarCity have taken advantage of the program, too.

As a result of legislation passed last year, pushed by the state’s labor unions, CAEATFA and other subsidy programs now include reporting requirements that direct state officials to “evaluate a project application based on specified criteria, including, among others, the extent to which the project will create new, permanent jobs in the state.” SB 749 would make that reported information public, subjecting Musk’s empire to additional scrutiny. The desire for increased oversight of public clean energy spending has also ruffled feathers, which SB 749 advocates say may be a factor in Musk’s companies’ opposition to the bill. Most recently, in May, the California Employment Training Panel rejected SpaceX’s request for $655,500 in job and training funds through another program, citing Musk’s threats to move Tesla production out of state amid Covid-19 shutdowns.

Unions have good reason to be concerned about clean energy companies’ track record as employers. Musk himself has been fiercely critical of unionization efforts at his nonunion plants, which have come under fire for their dangerous working conditions. He’s hardly alone, though. When the Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority, or L.A. Metro, entered into a $500 million contract with New Flyer of America to provide up to 900 buses, the company pledged to create 50 full-time jobs paying between $11 and $50 an hour. Disclosures later revealed that those promises never materialized. While the company promised new jobs would pay at least $18.75 an hour, quarterly reports years into the contract found that most workers were making less than $17 an hour. In response, Jobs to Move America filed a complaint against New Flyer and has created a framework for transportation authorities in other cities to demand certain labor protections through its procurement contracts. Essentially, SB 749—which Jobs to Move America is supporting—would simply ensure that companies that take advantage of California’s generous state subsidies and procurement programs are subject to public oversight.

With all new California city buses now required to be electric by 2029, more public contracts are coming to electric vehicle manufacturers. And as policies to incentivize clean energy build-outs through tax incentives and government contracts gain steam among policy wonks at the federal level, tools for public oversight over those programs could be crucial to making sure that the green jobs Biden has promised in his recovery plan are also good jobs. “What’s the point of having a clean environment if people don’t have the things they need to enjoy their lives?” said Abhilasha Bhola, senior policy coordinator for Jobs to Move America. To put it more bluntly: Promises to reduce emissions can only go so far at the ballot box. In the midst of what is sure to be a deep and painful recession, Democrats are going to have a tough time winning elections and enacting climate policy if they can’t ensure those policies will create safe, dignified, and well-paid jobs. For now, corporations don’t seem all that willing to open their books.