March 3, 2024

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NLRB claims SpaceX workers who criticized CEO Elon Musk for being a 'distraction and embarrassment' were illegally fired in retaliation

NLRB claims SpaceX workers who criticized CEO Elon Musk for being a 'distraction and embarrassment' were illegally fired in retaliation

Elon Musk. Antonio Masiello/Getty Images

The US Labor Council has accused SpaceX of illegally firing eight employees over an internal letter highly critical of CEO Elon Musk.

The National Labor Relations Board's regional director issued a complaint against SpaceX on Wednesday, alleging the company illegally interrogated, surveilled and retaliated against workers, agency spokeswoman Kayla Blado said in an email. The fired workers include the authors of a 2022 open letter protesting “inappropriate, offensive, and sexually charged comments on Twitter” by Musk, their lawyers wrote when they filed the case in 2022.

The NLRB complaint alleges that SpaceX management told workers that it had fired employees over their open letter, prohibited others from distributing it, and threatened termination if they engaged in class action, Blado said.

“At SpaceX, rockets may be reusable, but the people who make them are treated as expendable,” Paige Holland Thielen, a company employee, said in an emailed statement. “I hope these accusations hold SpaceX and its leadership accountable for their long history of mistreating workers and stifling discourse.”

The company, formally known as Space Exploration Technologies Corp, did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

The trial is scheduled to begin March 5, the NLRB said.

In June 2022 a group of employees Circulate an open letter Through SpaceX's internal communications channels criticizing Musk's online behavior and calling on the company to denounce and distance itself from his public comments.

“Elon’s behavior in the public sphere has been a frequent source of distraction and embarrassment to us, especially in recent weeks,” the letter said.

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Shortly after the letter circulated within SpaceX, several employees associated with drafting the letter were fired.

Complaints by NLRB prosecutors are heard by the agency's judges, whose rulings can be appealed to NLRB members in Washington, and then to federal court. The agency has the authority to order companies to reinstate fired workers and provide back wages, but generally cannot hold executives personally liable for alleged wrongdoing or issue any punitive damages.

Federal law protects employees' right to communicate and protest collectively about their working conditions, with or without a union.

While Musk has declared himself an “absolute supporter of free speech,” the US government has repeatedly accused his companies of trying to silence workers. Last year, SpaceX settled an allegation that it illegally tried to stifle an employee's speech. Separately, Musk's social media company X reached a settlement with a former employee who an NLRB regional director concluded was unlawfully terminated for protesting the return-to-office mandate. The NLRB members also ruled that Musk's electric car maker Tesla Inc. that an activist was illegally fired and that Musk threatened workers on social media; Tesla is appealing to federal court.