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labor NLRB Accuses SpaceX of Illegally Firing Workers for Criticizing Elon Musk

They wrote an open letter calling his behavior on social media a source of embarrassment.

photo of elon musk sitting in a chair
Michael M. Santiago

The National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) has filed a complaint against SpaceX, accusing it of unlawfully firing eight employees involved in writing a letter that called Elon Musk's behavior on social media "a frequent source of distraction and embarrassment." According to the filing, the company committed an unfair labor practice when it fired the workers for "engaging in protected concerted activity at work." It also accused SpaceX of interrogating at least one employee about the letter, as well as about the identities of their colleagues and the nature of their "concerted protected activity."

In addition, the complaint said SpaceX created an "impression of surveillance" by showing an employee screenshots of a Signal group chat several employees were a part of. The open letter at the center of this case was calling out Musk's "harmful Twitter behavior" before he acquired the website now known as X. In particular, the employees raised concerns about the crude jokes he made on X about the sexual misconduct accusations against him, which SpaceX settled for $250,000. The letter asked the company to hold leadership accountable for their actions and to condemn harmful behavior.

The employees involved in writing the letter circulated it within the company in mid-2022. According to The New York Times, SpaceX President Gwynne Shotwell reprimanded them within a few hours of sending it out and told them to "stop flooding employee communication channels immediately." Five employees were reportedly fired the next day, and four others were fired over July and August. Only one of them didn't take part in filing the unfair labor practice complaint. "At SpaceX the rockets may be reusable, but the people who build them are treated as expendable," Paige Holland-Thielen, one of the fired employees, told The Times. "I am hopeful these charges will hold SpaceX and its leadership accountable for their long history of mistreating workers and stifling discourse."

The case is slated to go before an administrative judge on March 5, though the company could settle before it takes place. If the NLRB decides that the company has violated labor laws, it can order SpaceX to reinstate workers and to give them appropriate backpay. SpaceX could appeal the decision to the board and then to a federal court, though, so it could be a long journey for the employees involved.

Musk has been at odds with the NLRB for years through his other companies. The board previously accused X of illegally firing an employee who pushed back against his return-to-office policy. Meanwhile, Tesla has dealt with several NLRB complaints, including one accusing the automaker of illegally terminating employees in retaliation for union activity.

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