SpaceX illegally fired workers critical of Musk, NLRB says


Federal labor officials on Wednesday accused rocket company SpaceX of illegally firing eight employees for circulating a letter critical of the company’s founder and CEO, Elon Musk.

According to a complaint issued by a regional office of the National Labor Relations Board, the company fired employees in 2022 for asking SpaceX to distance itself from Musk’s comments on social media, including one in which he mocked the accusations of sexual harassment against him. .

The letter distributed by employees also called on SpaceX, which has more than 13,000 employees, to clarify its harassment policies and enforce them consistently.

The labor board’s complaint said the company’s president and chief operating officer, Gwynne Shotwell, had illegally restricted employees from circulating the letter, and identified similar violations by other executives and managers.

The case is scheduled to go before an administrative law judge in early March unless SpaceX agrees to a settlement beforehand.

“At SpaceX the rockets may be reusable, but the people who build them are treated as expendable,” said Paige Holland-Thielen, one of the employees who was laid off. “I am hopeful that these charges will hold SpaceX and its leaders accountable for their long history of mistreating workers and suppressing speech.”

SpaceX did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Musk has at times taken a hard line toward his companies’ employees, such as when he laid off about half the workforce at Twitter, now known as X, shortly after buying the company in 2022. He later laid off about two dozen from internal critics of Twitter, which has lost about 80 percent of the 7,500 employees who worked there when the billionaire took over.

Tesla, where Musk is CEO, has spent years litigating a case in which the labor board accused it of firing an employee for engaging in union activities. The board ruled in 2021 that the firing was illegal and ordered Tesla to reinstate the worker with back pay, a decision upheld by a federal court. The company is appealing the case further.

The Justice Department sued SpaceX in August, accusing it of discriminating against asylum seekers and refugees in its hiring, but a judge issued an injunction preventing the case from moving forward.

In December 2021, a former SpaceX employee published an essay detailing instances of harassment and groping by colleagues that she said went largely unaddressed after she reported them.

The essay sparked outrage within the company, which said it would begin an audit of its harassment policies.

The following spring, Business Insider reported that SpaceX had paid $250,000 in 2018 to settle a lawsuit in which an employee accused Musk of exposing himself and propositioning her for sex. Mr. Musk denied the accusation and joked about it on Twitter.

Shortly after, a group of employees began brainstorming ideas to make the company less tolerant of harassment and writing the letter. Shotwell was aware of the effort and appeared supportive, according to comments he left on an internal communications platform seen by The New York Times.

In mid-June 2022, several employees circulated their letter to their colleagues. The letter called Musk’s public comments “a frequent source of distraction and embarrassment for us” and urged the company to “advocate for clear repercussions for any unacceptable behavior, whether from the CEO or an employee starting their first day.” .

While some managers responded sympathetically, within hours Ms. Shotwell reprimanded two employees involved in writing and distributing the letter, Tom Moline and Ms. Holland-Thielen. “Please stop flooding employee communication channels immediately,” Shotwell said in an email, adding, “I will consider ignoring my email insubordination.”

The next day, the company fired Mr. Moline, Ms. Holland-Thielen and three other employees involved in organizing the letter. It fired four others related to the letter in July and August 2022 (the labor board considered only eight firings because the ninth employee did not file a formal complaint).

The labor board complaint said the firings had been retaliatory and that Ms. Shotwell and other SpaceX officials had interfered with employees’ rights to engage in concerted activities that are legally protected.

He also said that a company vice president had broken the law by criticizing the letter in a meeting with employees a few days after its distribution and “inviting employees to resign if they disagreed with the behavior of CEO Elon Musk.” . The Times previously reported that a company vice president had told workers that the letter was an extremist act and that Musk could do whatever he wanted at the company.

The complaint also said that a senior human resources official had illegally created the impression of surveillance when he showed workers involved in writing the letter screenshots of a chat they had had on a messaging app.

ryan mac contributed reports.



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