A group of former SpaceX employees has filed unfair labor practice charges with the National Labor Relations Board, The New York Times reports. The employees say they were fired illegally after putting together a letter that called on the company to strengthen its “zero-tolerance policies” following sexual harassment allegations against Elon Musk.
Nine employees were ultimately fired after the letter came out in June, the Times reports, eight of whom filed the charges with federal regulators. The letter, first reported on by The Verge, asked SpaceX executives for three things: to curb “Elon’s harmful Twitter behavior,” to define and enforce the company’s sexual harassment policies, and ensure that all leadership is held accountable for violating such policies.
Employees say they were fired illegally
“SpaceX’s current systems and culture do not live up to its stated values, as many employees continue to experience unequal enforcement of our oft-repeated ‘No Asshole’ and ‘Zero Tolerance’ policies. This must change,” the letter read. More than 400 employees signed it.
In the weeks leading up to the letter, Musk had taken to Twitter to make light of new sexual harassment allegations against him. A flight attendant on a company jet said he had shown her his penis and asked for an erotic massage — telling her he would buy her a horse for doing so, Insider reported in May. SpaceX wound up paying the flight attendant $250,000 to settle her sexual misconduct claim in 2018, according to Insider.
The Insider report was only the latest public controversy about working conditions at SpaceX. A former engineer published an essay last December describing years of sexual harassment she says she faced at the company. Four more former SpaceX employees came forward that month, sharing sexual harassment they experienced or witnessed against other women and nonbinary people with The Verge. In 2020, a former intern sued SpaceX, saying the company retaliated against her for reporting sexual harassment and gender discrimination.
Joking about the Insider report and his then-still-pending Twitter takeover with YouTube co-founder Chad Hurley, on May 20th, Musk tweeted, “Hi Chad, long time no see! Fine, if you touch my wiener, you can have a horse.”
“Elon’s behavior in the public sphere is a frequent source of distraction and embarrassment for us,” SpaceX employees subsequently wrote in their open letter.
“Elon’s behavior in the public sphere is a frequent source of distraction and embarrassment for us”
That elicited swift backlash from company leadership. “We have too much critical work to accomplish and no need for this kind of overreaching activism,” SpaceX president Gwynne Shotwell wrote in an email to staff shortly after the letter circulated. “We performed an investigation and have terminated a number of employees involved.”
After firing five employees who were involved in writing the letter, SpaceX held a heated meeting in which vice president Jon Edwards told employees, “SpaceX is Elon and Elon is SpaceX,” according to The New York Times. Several more employees were reportedly fired after the meeting.
Firing employees involved in writing the letter likely violated US labor law, legal experts told The Verge in June. “This could very much be seen as retaliation for speaking up,” Mary Inman, a whistleblower attorney at Constantine Cannon, said to The Verge. “What does this say to workers? It basically says, we don’t want to hear from you.” SpaceX did not immediately respond to a request for comment by The Verge.
More recently, outside of SpaceX, Musk has fired even more people who challenged him. At Twitter this week, at least 10 people have reportedly been fired for critical remarks of Musk on the company’s private Slack. Several more employees have lost their jobs after tweeting about Musk. That’s on the heels of Musk unceremoniously laying off half of all Twitter’s employees just a week after taking over the social media platform in October.
This also isn’t the first time that the National Labor Relations Board has gotten involved with an employee dispute at a Musk-owned company. Following a lengthy legal battle, the NLRB in 2021 upheld a 2019 decision that Tesla illegally fired a worker involved in efforts to unionize its Fremont factory. The decision mandated that Tesla rehire the employee with back pay. If SpaceX is similarly found to have violated the law when it fired employees who wrote the open letter in June, the company might be forced to reinstate them with back pay also. Any managers or supervisors who were axed, however, wouldn’t receive the same protections under the National Labor Relations Act.