Elon Musk's Brother Wants to Build Utopian Learning Gardens, Without Unions

Staff at Kimbal Musk's non-profit Big Green have been forbidden from talking to each other or the media about their union, and threatened with termination for doing so, according to an unfair labor practice charge.
August 6, 2021, 3:13pm
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On the Clock is Motherboard's reporting on the organized labor movement, gig work, automation, and the future of work.

The non-profit Big Green, a pet project of Elon Musk's billionaire entrepreneur brother Kimbal Musk to build vegetable gardens in underfunded schools in Detroit, Memphis, Chicago and other cities, is fighting a union drive led by its staff. 

According to three unfair labor practice charges filed by the Communications Worker of America (CWA) union obtained by Motherboard, unionizing staff who build and maintain "learning gardens," that grow fruits and vegetables, have been retaliated against for discussing and posting about their union on Instagram and Twitter, forbidden from communicating with each other or publicly about the union, and threatened with discipline up to termination for doing so. Luke O’Neil first reported about Big Green’s unionization effort.

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"Big Green has advised employees seeking to join a union that they may not communicate with each other or the media regarding their terms and conditions of employment [and] threatened employers with discipline up to and including termination in the event they speak to each other or publicly regarding their workplace concerns," one of the charges filed with the National Labor Relations Board on August 2, reads. 

In July, the non-profit sent a letter to all staff in response to their request for voluntary union recognition, saying that the company would not recognize the union, according to a current staff member and a CWA union organizer. 

Big Green's anti-union stance coincides with a series of outwardly progressive institutions and companies, including art museums, universities, public interest law firms, and green energy companies, taking measures to ensure their employees don't unionize. On its website, Big Green states that its aim is to "help kids dig into their education, thrive with real, nutritious foods and healthy habits, and become active participants in strengthening their communities." Kimball Musk made his fortune in Silicon Valley, with a series of ventures alongside his brother. In recent years, he has focused on his "real food philosophy," by establishing a network of agricultural and educational ventures in an attempt to transform the country's food system to local, health, and organic farms. "Our big vision to change food in America to impact all kids, and particularly the most underserved with healthy, vibrant futures, is becoming a reality," Kimball said of Big Green in 2018. 

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During the pandemic, Kimbal's sustainable restaurant chain, Next Door, which collected income from workers into a "family fund" for emergencies, laid off workers without severance, and the "family fund" mysteriously disappeared. 

Kimbal has not made any public statements about the union. But a close friend and confidant to his brother, he sits on the board of SpaceX and Tesla, the latter of which has a record of harassing workers for union activity, banning them from wearing union T-shirts and buttons, and interrogating them about union activism. Elon has made his opposition to a union at Tesla no secret on Twitter, and earlier this year, was ordered by the government to delete an anti-union tweet. Kimbal was also on the board of Chipotle, a company with a substantial allegations of worker abuse, including wage theft and child labor.

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In early 2021, a small group of program coordinators at the company began talking in secret about unionizing after some workers were furloughed during the pandemic and lost their healthcare. Most workers loved their jobs but felt like management was often out-of-touch with the low-income communities they served—and did not give workers enough of a say in how they prioritized different initiatives, so they approached the Denver Newspaper Guild, a branch of CWA, for help unionizing. Soon, they went public on Instagram and Twitter. 

"I want a union because I want to have transparency, allow space for our voices to be heard in the ways we interact with the community we gratefully service, as well as give support to members in all our regions," Sarah Burns, a program coordinator in Memphis, wrote in a post on the union's Instagram account. 

On July 29, Odie Avery, a Detroit-based project manager for Big Green, posted a photo of clean-up day at a schoolyard garden he'd helped build on his public Instagram account, mentioning the union and tagging Kimbal Musk.

The post was captioned, "Our communities are the main reason my colleagues and I have formed @biggreenunion and we continue asking @biggreen and @kimbalmusk to live up to their 'Big Green Promise' and voluntarily recognize our unit. Only through collective action can we fully support the communities we serve." 

The next day, management called Avery into a Zoom conference and forbade him from talking about the union during work and going to any school events until September 30, which is the bulk of his job. The ban, he says, was punishment for posting about the union during work hours, posting a photo that featured a coworker who had not consented, and sharing proprietary information about the company's relationship with the school which had not yet been made public. 

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"When they reprimanded me, I was told I'm not allowed to participate in any Big Green events until the end of the quarter, September 30," Avery told Motherboard. "I can't go to kick off days or to plant vegetables or maintain the gardens to make sure they're clean and tidy." 

Avery told Motherboard that previously the company had encouraged employees to post about the company and their work on social media. 

Another worker who posted on social media and spoke on a podcast called Street Fight Radio about the union campaign was also punished, according to one of the unfair labor practice charges obtained by Motherboard. "Big Green disciplined [redacted name] for speaking out about the unionization effort in an effort to chill public comment and undermine the unionization effort," the charge reads.

"The rule about not talking about the union during work hours was never articulated," Avery continued. "I feel like what they did to me specifically was an attempt to intimidate and scare everyone from speaking out in any way. They're trying to make an example of us. To Big Green, it boils down to them wanting to pull the strings and call the shots without any pushback." 

All eleven employees in the proposed unit have declared support for the union, and are waiting for a green light from the National Labor Relations Board to set a date for their union election.

Big Green did not respond to a request for comment. 

Correction: This article previously said Kimbal Musk currently sits on the board of Chipotle. He stepped down in 2019. Motherboard regrets the error.