Tesla's solar panel factory stands on a site with historical significance to the United Steelworkers union, as the long-ago home of a Republic Steel complex.
"They built that facility on what we consider sacred USW land, where thousands of good family-sustaining jobs were for decades, prior to the plant closure," said Maria Somma, organizing director for the Pittsburgh-based union.
Last December, the Steelworkers and the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers launched an effort to organize hourly workers at Tesla's South Buffalo facility.
"We are committed to making sure that those workers who are working for Tesla, who are on our sacred USW land, get the same rights and the same advantages that our members had prior to the [Republic] plant closing," Somma said.
Somma is scheduled to be the keynote speaker at the annual meeting of the Western New York Area Labor Federation, AFL-CIO on Saturday at UAW Region 9's offices in Amherst.
The Steelworkers union has a longtime connection to the Buffalo area, through once-sprawling manufacturing operations like Bethlehem Steel and Republic Steel. That connection continues today, through local plants including Sumitomo Rubber USA, DuPont and Aurubis Buffalo. The headquarters for the union's District 4, covering Northeast and New England states, is in Cheektowaga.
The Steelworkers union has 850,000 members in North America. Beyond workplace elections, the union partners with community-based groups in different regions to support workers' rights in a variety of ways, Somma said.
"What we're focused on is building real strength and solidarity in the workplace, to fix the problems that they have there," she said.
"Sometimes that's in the form of a union – we hope that that is eventually where it goes to. Sometimes it's a group of workers coming together to take on their bosses, to make the changes, with or without the union," she said.
The union works with community-based groups committed to causes including the environment and immigrants' rights, Somma said.
"We're no longer just about winning that election," she said. "If we were, underneath this (National Labor Relations Board), we'd be in big trouble. But what we're about building is the connection of workers and community, and figuring out how we can solve problems together."
Somma cited the results of a Gallup poll last year, which asked Americans if they approved of labor unions. Sixty two percent of respondents said yes, the highest level since 2003.
"I think the average American understands the value of the unions, based upon polling data and other data that's been gathered," Somma said. "But then, the question is, how do you then put a union into the workplace, and that's the legal process. … I think the laws on the books are there. The question is the enforcement of the law."