Welcome to This Week in Elon. Quick reminder: we are off next week for Thanksgiving. Enjoy the holiday!
This is Sean O’Kane, filling in for Liz, who is vacationing at an undisclosed location in the northern hemisphere and is (hopefully) very far away from her phone right now. I am also on the road this week for a story we’re working on about Tesla, so this newsletter is coming to you live from [drumroll] Reno, Nevada. Or, actually, Sparks, Nevada. Okay, technically, I’m publishing this from a van on a highway in northern California.
The point is
, we went to the Gigafactory this week. It was the first time The Verge
had been to the Gigafactory since the official opening in 2016
. I won’t go too long on the experience here, since we’ll have a more in-depth look on the site in the coming weeks. (Suffice to say, it’s a big place! Who knew.)
But what struck me about Reno, Sparks, and the factory itself is how it is (and isn’t) like some other really famous company towns.
I have a mild obsession with company towns, and two in particular always jump to mind. One is the community Henry Ford built around the River Rouge plant in Michigan. River Rouge was a vertically integrated plant — Musk has said it was an inspiration for Tesla’s similar approach with the Gigafactory — and Ford applied this thinking to his workers, too.
Ford famously pioneered a $5 a day wage at his factories to allow (in part, at least) the company’s workers to be able to afford the cars they made.
More than just enabling them to buy the company’s cars, Ford had the company offer friendly loans for employees to buy houses, and in some cases provided housing for his workers. His desire to fully integrate his workers into the company vision ran so deep he even set up a school to teach English to his immigrant employees.
Ford, a noted racist, made graduates of that school dress in indigenous clothing
, step into a giant “melting pot” prop on the stage, change into “American” suits and hats, and emerge — and this is according to the Henry Ford Museum — “waving American flags, having undergone a spiritual smelting process where the impurities of foreignness were burnt off as slag to be tossed away leaving a new 100% American.”
Ford didn’t stop there, either. The company had a “Sociological Department” that investigated whether employees were being “model Americans.” He also
cleared a huge swath of the Brazilian rainforest in an attempt to build a rubber factory, and created an entire town for the workers, hospital and church included. It was called Fordlandia. There’s a whole book about it
that I can’t recommend enough.
The other company town I always think about is the one called Lost Hills run by Wonderful, a major California farming company that also makes POM juice and Fiji water. Wonderful’s owners, a billionaire couple named Stewart and Lynda Resnick, have built trailer parks for field workers, and use dietitians and trainers to push employees to eat healthy and exercise more.
The story of Wonderful and Lost Hills was captured in this vivid California Sunday Magazine piece
, which I also strongly endorse. The TL;DR is that Wonderful’s is a more nuanced situation than Ford’s Big Brother-ish approach to creating a company town. While there’s plenty of reason to bristle at the Resnick’s vision, or their approach, there’s definitely more room to argue they’re doing some good for their employees.
To be clear, I’m not saying Tesla is like either of these two examples. But after a few days in the Reno-Sparks area, it’s hard to deny that something is brewing. Browse a convenience store at the right time of day and you’re likely to spot a Gigafactory worker in a black Tesla baseball cap making a pit stop before or after their shift change. Model 3s, Ss, and Xs dot the highways, though not in the same overwhelming numbers close to the company’s Fremont, California factory. Tesla is an easy, even common topic of conversation at Reno restaurants, hotels, or even the Wal-Mart parking lot.
Tesla is also now firmly on the path to a global Gigafactory expansion, with a lease signed in China and a European location announcement on the horizon. These new Gigafactories will in turn employ thousands of new employees, in countries with different cultural norms and protections for workers. Whatever path Tesla takes as it moves forward, it’s worth keeping cases like Ford and Wonderful in mind along the way.