SpaceX executives illegally fired nine workers who objected to CEO Elon Musk’s tweets, a complaint filed this week with the nation’s labor board alleges.
After a group of workers this summer complained that Musk’s frequent tweeting of insults, sexual puns and political statements reflected badly on the space exploration company, executives targeted the employees for dismissal, the workers charge. According to the workers, five of them were fired immediately and four more were let go over the ensuing two months.
Now, lawyers for eight of the SpaceX employees have filed a formal complaint with the National Labor Relations Board seeking to get their jobs back.
SpaceX “missed an incredible opportunity to improve the company culture and instead just fired them. And that’s just tragic. I mean, these are the type of workers you want,” Anne Shaver, a partner with Lieff Cabraser Heimann & Bernstein who is representing the workers behind the complaint, told CBS MoneyWatch.
“This letter they sent was incredibly diplomatic — they truly hoped to engage in a dialogue to make the company a better place for everyone to work in order to help the mission succeed. The messaging at SpaceX had always been, anybody at any level can raise concerns to the top,” she said.
Musk’s management of SpaceX, Tesla and Twitter, which he now owns, has come under scrutiny after his move to take control of the social media company. At Twitter, employeesafter disagreeing with Musk’s strategies publicly and privately.
In May, allegations surfaced that Musk had exposed himself to a SpaceX flight attendant, and that the company gave her a $250,000 settlement in exchange for her silence. Musk suggested naming the scandal “Elongate” and went on to tell another Twitter user, “Fine, if you touch my wiener, you can have a horse.”, challenging the accuser to “describe anything at all” about his body “that isn’t known to the public.” He gleefully
Other comments the CEO has tweeted include: “Jack in the Box should do double duty as a sperm clinic”; a picture of dinosaurs mating; and various posts opposing the use of pronouns in written communications to indicate someone’s gender.
In their open letter to Musk in June, the employees asked SpaceX to clarify its worker conduct policies and to apply those rules uniformly across the company. Separately, they asked SpaceX to “condemn” Musk’s “harmful Twitter behavior.”
“Elon’s behavior in the public sphere is a frequent source of distraction and embarrassment for us,” workers wrote in the letter, a copy of which was filed with paperwork with the NLRB on Wednesday.
“As our CEO and most prominent spokesperson, Elon is seen as the face of SpaceX — every Tweet that Elon sends is a de facto public statement by the company. It is critical to make clear to our teams and to our potential talent pool that his messaging does not reflect our work, our mission, or our values. SpaceX’s current systems and culture do not live up to its stated values,” they wrote.
Letter to Musk a “distraction”
On June 16, the day after the letter circulated, SpaceX fired Tom Moline, a senior engineer who helped lead the effort to draft the missive, along with four other employees, according to the NLRB complaint. The company in July and August fired four other workers involved in circulating the letter.
The same day Moline and four others were dismissed, SpaceX President Gwynne Shotwell called the letter a “distraction” in an email, saying the company had “no need for this kind of overreaching activism.”
“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,” Shotwell said in the email, which was filed with the NLRB along with the employees’ complaint.
“We performed an investigation and have terminated a number of employees involved,” she said.
Under federal law, it’s illegal to retaliate against workers who try to improve their conditions, including by collectively raising concerns about the workplace.
If the labor board agrees that the workers were fired illegally, it could order SpaceX to rehire them and offer back pay.
A lawyer for the workers also did not rule out pursuing a private lawsuit against the company, alleging that SpaceX broke several laws when it fired them, including federal and state laws against discrimination.
Christopher Cardaci, head of the SpaceX legal department, did not respond to an email seeking comment.
Do rules apply to Musk?
Jeffery Pfeffer, a professor who specializes in organizational behavior at Stanford University’s business school, told the Associated Press that the allegations were hardly a surprise given Musk’s leadership style at Twitter. Musk recently eliminated half the staff of the social media company and imposed an, telling workers they need to “be extremely hardcore” and work long hours to rebuild the platform.
Musk’s success at Tesla and SpaceX have created what Pfeffer labeled as hubris under the false notion that it was “all about individual genius.”
“Powerful people get to break the rules. They don’t think they are bound by the same conventions as other people,” Pfeffer said. He added that it showed the arrogance of Musk, one of the world’s richest men: “Why would he think he is a mere mortal?”
Free speech, but not for all
While Musk champions free speech and openness, workers said their firing in response to raising concerns was a shock.
“Part of what was supposed to be so great about SpaceX was that any person at any level could escalate issues to leadership and be taken seriously and treated with respect,” Paige Holland-Thielen, another of the fired workers, said in a statement. “We never imagined that SpaceX would fire us for trying to help the company succeed.”
The workers were dismayed at what they saw as a reversal from Shotwell, who was initially supportive, Moline told the New York Times, which first reported the labor charges.
“I thought she was doing a good job protecting and advocating for us against some of the worst impulses that Elon and others might have had,” he told the outlet. “Finally realizing that she wasn’t that savior — that broke down the trust for me.”
The Associated Press contributed reporting