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SpaceX charged with unlawfully firing employees critical of Elon Musk


In June 2022, SpaceX fired several employees who had distributed an open letter condemning the behaviour of its founder and CEO Elon Musk. This Wednesday, the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) filed a complaint and notice of hearing charging SpaceX with unfair labour practices and unlawful dismissal.

The former SpaceX employees first brought their complaint against the company on Nov. 16, 2022, three months after the allegedly retaliatory layoffs began. Now, after investigating the charges and apparently finding enough evidence to support them, the NLRB has officially accused SpaceX of violating the National Labor Relations Act by “interfering with, restraining, and coercing employees in the exercise of the rights guaranteed” therein.

Specifically, the complainants’ lawyers noted the NLRB listed 37 separate violations of the Act: “11 for coercive statements, 2 for coercive statements/implied threats, 7 for interrogation, 4 for unlawful instructions, 3 for impression of surveillance, and 10 for retaliation for involvement in protected concerted activity.”

“The complaint alleges that the employer unlawfully discharged eight employees who drafted and distributed an open letter detailing workplace concerns,” an NLRB spokesperson said in a statement to Mashable.

“Additionally, the employer 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.”

The NLRB has requested an order instructing SpaceX to ensure all employees are aware of the notice of hearing and its contents, display a poster explaining employees’ rights for one year, and allow a NLRB agent to train all its managers and supervisors on the National Labor Relations Act and unfair labour practices. The Board has also asked that SpaceX be made to write letters of apology to those it has dismissed or disciplined, as well as reinstate them and issue backpay.

“We wrote the open letter to leadership not out of malice, but because we cared about the mission and the people around us,” said Deborah Lawrence, one of the employees laid off by SpaceX. “We believed that SpaceX could be a better place and that you can have a healthy, safe workplace and still reach the stars.”

Unless settled, the matter will now be heard by a NLRB administrative law judge, with the hearing scheduled to begin on Mar. 5.

Mashable has reached out to SpaceX for comment.

Why did SpaceX allegedly fire people over an open letter?

In the open letter circulated at SpaceX around June 15, 2022, the former SpaceX workers called Musk’s behaviour a “distraction and embarrassment,” particularly noting his frequently controversial or antagonistic posts on then-Twitter. This came just one month after Insider had reported that Musk paid $250,000 to settle a sexual misconduct lawsuit, which he appeared to try to get ahead of by posting that there was a “dirty tricks campaign” against him. He also made jokes about the allegations on Twitter.

This was not the billionaire’s first or only questionable behaviour. Musk was already notorious for his Twitter posts, a platform he later acquired and renamed X. In 2018 Musk was sued by the SEC for a “false and misleading tweet” stating an intention to take Tesla private at $420 — a meme number frequently associated with marijuana use. Then in 2019, Musk was put on trial for defamation after he called a member of the 2018 Thai cave rescue team a “pedo guy.”

Conduct such as this apparently prompted SpaceX workers to voice their concerns about their CEO’s impact on the company’s reputation. Stating that “Elon is seen as the face of SpaceX,” the open letter urged the company to “swiftly and explicitly separate itself from Elon’s personal brand.”

Unfortunately, SpaceX seemed less than receptive to this feedback, beginning to fire employees explicitly due to their involvement in the letter from around one day later. Meanwhile, others were allegedly interrogated and invited to quit if they disagreed with Musk’s behaviour.

This is far from the only time one of Musk’s companies has fallen afoul of the NLRB. The richest man in the world has a well-documented history of opposing workers’ attempts to organise, having seemingly implied that employees would lose job-related benefits if they unionised. Over 30 Tesla workers were reportedly fired after trying to unionise in February last year, prompting a complaint to the NLRB — though it was later dismissed. Earlier this week, the NLRB ruled that Tesla cannot restrict employees from wearing union insignias unless there are “special circumstances,” such as where they may be a safety hazard.





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