SpaceX charged with illegally firing workers behind anti-Musk open letter

Enlarge / Elon Musk speaks with members of the media at the AI Safety Summit on November 1, 2023 in Bletchley, England.

Getty Images | Leon Neal

SpaceX illegally fired eight employees who criticized CEO Elon Musk in an open letter, a National Labor Relations Board regional director alleged in a complaint filed against the company today.

“Today, the NLRB Regional Director in Region 31 (Los Angeles) issued a consolidated complaint against SpaceX in Hawthorne, CA, covering eight unfair practice charges,” the NLRB said in a statement provided to Ars. “The complaint alleges that the employer unlawfully discharged eight employees who drafted and distributed an open letter detailing workplace concerns.”

A complaint is not a board decision, the statement noted. It means the regional office investigated the charges and found merit in them. The complaint and notice of hearing is confirmed on the NLRB website, and you can read the complaint here.

The NLRB said the complaint seeks reinstatement of the employees, back pay, and letters of apology to the fired employees. If SpaceX doesn’t settle the charges, there will be a hearing with an NLRB administrative law judge starting on March 5.

In June 2022, SpaceX employees circulated a letter that urged company executives to condemn CEO Elon Musk’s public behavior. The letter made a reference to a report of a sexual misconduct allegation, called out “Elon’s harmful Twitter behavior,” and said that “SpaceX must swiftly and explicitly separate itself from Elon’s personal brand.”

“Elon’s behavior in the public sphere is a frequent source of distraction and embarrassment for us,” the employees’ letter said.

SpaceX called employee activity “not acceptable”

SpaceX quickly fired the employees, with President Gwynne Shotwell explaining in an email to the remaining staff that the “letter, solicitations and general process made employees feel uncomfortable, intimidated and bullied, and/or angry because the letter pressured them to sign onto something that did not reflect their views.”

“Blanketing thousands of people across the company with repeated unsolicited emails and asking them to sign letters and fill out unsponsored surveys during the work day is not acceptable,” Shotwell wrote to SpaceX staff. The fired employees filed charges with the NLRB in November 2022.

Today’s NLRB statement said that SpaceX “told other employees that the eight were discharged for participating in the open letter, interrogated other employees about the open letter (and instructed employees not to discuss the investigatory interviews), created an impression of surveillance (including reading and showing screenshots of communications between employees), disparaged participation in the open letter, and restricted employees from distributing the open letter. The employer also invited employees to quit and threatened discharge if employees engaged in protected concerted activities.”

We contacted SpaceX today and will update this article if it provides a response.

“Campaign of intimidation and coercion”

The fired employees’ law firm issued a press release saying that the NLRB complaint alleges 37 labor law violations for coercive statements, implied threats, interrogation, unlawful instructions, creating the impression of surveillance, and retaliation for involvement in protected concerted activity.

“The charges stem from the company’s response to the employees’ letter to SpaceX’s executive team, which expressed concern about allegations of sexual harassment by CEO Elon Musk, and his harmful behavior on Twitter that hurt the company’s reputation, infected the company culture and created a toxic work environment,” the law firm said. “In response to the employees’ plea for systemic change to correct these concerns, SpaceX launched a campaign of intimidation and coercion: pulling employees into clandestine interrogations by HR, falsely claiming the meetings were attorney-client privileged, and telling employees to keep the meetings a secret even from their managers.”

Though eight employees filed charges with the NLRB, the press release said that SpaceX fired nine people for their involvement in the letter.

Fired employee Deborah Lawrence said that “SpaceX’s ‘mission above all else’ mentality hurts everyone in the organization by allowing people to get away with harmful behavior, including harassment, groping, and physical violence, directed disproportionately at women. The toxic culture has resulted in many hard-working people, who were otherwise highly motivated by the company’s mission, quitting. We wrote the open letter to leadership not out of malice, but because we cared about the mission and the people around us.”

Tom Moline, another fired employee involved in the case, said, “I had no doubt that the NLRB would recognize SpaceX’s actions for what they were: feeble attempts to punish, intimidate, and silence me and hundreds of other workers who simply sought to improve workplace conditions and address the toxic culture set by Elon Musk, enforced by Gwynne Shotwell, and enabled by all levels of SpaceX leadership. We will not be silenced, and I am confident that SpaceX will be held accountable for their illegal actions.”

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