The U.S. National Labor Relations Board has initiated legal action against SpaceX, asserting that the aerospace manufacturer, led by Elon Musk, unlawfully terminated eight employees. The complaint alleges that these employees were fired after drafting and disseminating an open letter that criticized Musk and accused the company of showing preferential treatment in addressing issues of sexual harassment within the workplace. The National Labor Relations Board’s complaint, obtained by CNBC through a Freedom of Information Act request, contends that the terminated employees had engaged in “concerted activities with other employees for the purposes of mutual aid or protection” by expressing their workplace concerns through the open letter.
In their public address, SpaceX employees expressed concerns about Elon Musk’s behavior, stating that his actions in the public domain often caused distraction and embarrassment for the workforce. The open letter highlighted Musk’s divisive social media posts and raised allegations of sexual misconduct, asserting that these actions contradicted SpaceX’s own policies of maintaining a workplace free from disruptive behavior, as outlined in their “no assholes” and “zero tolerance” policies. The employees circulated the letter internally at SpaceX, with its release following Business Insider’s report on Musk’s alleged proposition and exposure to a flight attendant on a company private jet in 2016. This incident resulted in a sexual harassment claim against Musk, reportedly settled by SpaceX for $250,000 in 2018.
Musk has refuted the allegations of sexual misconduct, categorizing them as “wild accusations.” Following the Business Insider report, SpaceX COO and President Gwynne Shotwell came to Musk’s defense, countering the claims of sexual harassment. Subsequently, when the employees at that time wrote the open letter, the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) determined that company management had engaged in “interrogation” of the authors and had made “coercive statements,” including the suggestion that employees should “quit if they disagreed with the behavior of Chief Executive Officer Elon Musk.” According to the NLRB complaint, SpaceX ultimately terminated these employees for engaging in protected speech, marking a violation of their rights.
Musk presents himself as a proponent or absolutist of free speech. Nevertheless, as previously highlighted by CNBC, his companies have consistently attempted to suppress the expression of others when it involves criticism of Musk or his enterprises. One instance is the social network X, previously known as Twitter, which, under Musk’s ownership, has suspended accounts of users who shared information or comments critical of Musk or his businesses. This included actions against individuals such as software developer Travis Brown and Aaron Greenspan, the founder of PlainSite, an online repository of legal and public records.
Laurie Burgess, the legal representative for the SpaceX employees terminated for releasing their open letter, informed CNBC that her clients have officially lodged a complaint with the California Civil Rights Department. The complaint alleges “failure to address sexual harassment at SpaceX.” Notably, SpaceX has substantial operations and its headquarters in Hawthorne, California.
Requests for comments directed towards SpaceX went unanswered, and the California Civil Rights Department did not provide an immediate response to a comment request. In an email to CNBC on Wednesday, a spokesperson for the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) conveyed that the labor agency’s Los Angeles regional director issued the consolidated complaint against SpaceX after conducting an investigation into the allegations made by former employees.
The NLRB regional office is currently aiming to facilitate a resolution between SpaceX and the former employees who were terminated for expressing their views. In the event of a failure to reach a settlement, the case will advance to a hearing before an administrative law judge at the NLRB, commencing on March 5 in Los Angeles. It’s important to note that the decision of the administrative law judge is not inherently conclusive and may be subject to appeal before the NLRB board and potentially a federal appeals court.