Suspecting deliberations on potential Tesla deal, Travis County union representatives weigh in on use of economic development incentives

A photo for the main Travis County building's sign
Electric automaker Tesla has reportedly narrowed down its options for a new auto plant to Austin and Tulsa, Oklahoma. (Community Impact Newspaper Staff)

Electric automaker Tesla has reportedly narrowed down its options for a new auto plant to Austin and Tulsa, Oklahoma. (Community Impact Newspaper Staff)

An auto union representative and others weighed in June 16 about the possibility of Palo Alto-based electric automaker Tesla building its next plant in Travis County, where commissioners may be considering economic incentives to finalize terms for a deal with the company.

An item taken in executive session on the Travis County Commissioners Court’s June 16 agenda pertained to Travis County Code Chapter 28, which covers the use of economic development incentives used to “stimulate business and commercial activity” in the county.

Until recently, Travis County was in a self-imposed moratorium on the use of Chapter 28 economic development incentives. An item regarding Chapter 28 first appeared on the Commissioners Court agenda May 26, and, after a discussion in executive session, commissioners voted to “unpause” the use of such incentives. However, the lifted moratorium was to be lifted for only up to two months, to be used on a single, unidentified “special project.”

According to the United Auto Workers—an automobile workers’ union—that “special project” is electric carmaker Tesla’s next assembly plant. UAW communications representative Brian Rothenburg told Community Impact Newspaper on June 16 that “it is [UAW’s] understanding that Item 21 was about Tesla.”

Tesla CEO Elon Musk has also confirmed in the past that the company’s new plant will be constructed in either Austin or Tulsa, Oklahoma. The “gigafactory,” as Tesla calls its plants, may be its largest facility yet, according to comments made by Tesla CFO Zachary Kirkhorn during a quarterly earnings report April 30, and could supply thousands of jobs.

However, Travis County representatives have not confirmed that Tesla is the subject of the county’s current economic incentives discussion. Hector Nieto, Travis County public information officer, declined to comment on the item, citing attorney-client privilege exceptions to the Texas Open Meetings Act for the item in question.

Still, several members of the public, including a representative from UAW, called into court June 16 to weigh in on the county’s use of economic incentives for large corporations and called for more transparency into related proceedings. Tesla, while alluded to, was not explicitly named.

“Certainly, the UAW has a record of being interested in maintaining auto jobs and other kinds of jobs that are good for the middle class,” said Manuel Quinto-Pozos, a local attorney for UAW.

Quinto-Pozos cautioned commissioners to consider the importance of safeguards for workers who would be employed by a corporation that benefits from Chapter 28 incentives.

“I would ask that you please not rush in your judgment and your work on this, especially in the middle of this pandemic,” he said. “I’m concerned about what has happened in other situations where a company has received incentives and made certain promises that are not fulfilled.”

Carol Guthrie, business manager for the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees Local 1624, a union representing Austin and Travis County government employees, called in to express frustration that county resources would be used to aid a wealthy company.

“To consider now that perhaps they need incentives in order to come to Travis County is absolutely shameful, especially when your own employees aren’t getting a pay raise because we were told the funds just weren’t there,” Guthrie said. “If someone wants to come to our wonderful town here, to Austin and Travis County, and they are a billionaire, I would certainly hope they could foot their own bill.”

Other workers union representatives also called in to express perspectives similar to UAW’s, including Jessica Wolf, deputy policy director for the Workers Defense Project.

“If a company is coming here and creating jobs, we want to ensure those are good, safe jobs,” Wolf said.

No vote or motion was taken up regarding agenda Item 21 following the commissioners’ executive session discussion, but Travis County Judge Sam Biscoe confirmed that the discussion would be taken up again at next week’s meeting June 23.
By Olivia Aldridge
Olivia is the reporter for Community Impact's Central Austin edition. A graduate of Presbyterian College in upstate South Carolina, Olivia was a reporter and producer at South Carolina Public Radio before joining Community Impact in Austin.


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