Former SpaceX employees say they were fired in June for writing and circulating an open letter criticizing the behavior of the company’s CEO, Elon Musk, as well as the content he posts on Twitter. The eight ex-employees have filed unfair labor practices charges with the National Labor Relations Board. They claim SpaceX retaliated against them for writing the letter and that their dismissals were illegal.
Gizmodo obtained a copy of the charge filed by former SpaceX employee Paige Holland-Thielen, who is one of five employees fired one day after sending the open letter to SpaceX leadership. She is represented by attorney Anne Shaver at Lieff Cabraser Heimann & Bernstein.
Holland-Thielen argues that SpaceX employees who participated in the open letter were carrying out a “concerted protected activity.” Under the National Labor Relations Act, federal law bars employers from taking action against employees engaged in protected concerted activities. Holland-Thielen’s states in her complaint that SpaceX didn’t stop searching for employees involved in the open letter even after it fired her and others in June.
“After this initial wave of wrongful retaliatory terminations, over the next two months SpaceX continued its campaign of retaliation and intimidation by interrogating dozens of employees in private meetings and falsely telling them that the conversations were attorney client privileged and could not be disclosed to anyone,” Holland-Thielen’s said in her complaint.
She goes on to say that SpaceX used the information gained from “its unlawful coercive interrogations” to terminate four additional employees in July in August “in retaliation for their conduct of drafting and/or sharing the Open Letter with other SpaceX employees on internal company channels.”
Holland-Thielen’s complaint and those of other former SpaceX employees were first reported in a Thursday report published by the New York Times, which also revealed new details about what happened at SpaceX after the employees sent executives their open letter. The letter was drafted in the wake of a May story alleging Musk had exposed his genitals to a flight attendant and asked her for sex in exchange for a horse. Musk has denied the allegations, including the claim that SpaceX paid the flight attendant a $250,000 settlement to keep quiet.
The Times report illustrates how Musk-led companies are inextricably linked to his identity and highlights the billionaire’s iron grip on how they’re run. Furthermore, the report underscores how Musk deals with dissent at his companies, a topic of high public interest at the moment given his treatment of Twitter employees, some of whom he’s firing via the social network they work on.
According to the outlet, shortly after SpaceX fired employees for their involvement in the letter, the company set up a meeting with a group of about 20 engineers. The employees involved in the NLRB case allege that nine employees were fired as a result of the letter, although only eight are listed in the claim.
Jon Edwards, SpaceX’s vice president of Falcon Launch Vehicles, led the meeting and explained that employees had committed an “extremist act” by writing it. They were fired for distracting the company and challenging Musk, Edwards allegedly said. He also sent a message that Musk was untouchable, according to the Times, and could do whatever he wanted.
“SpaceX is Elon and Elon is SpaceX,” Edwards reportedly said, according to two employees at the meeting who spoke to the Times.
Gizmodo reached out to SpaceX but did not receive a response by the time of publication. SpaceX rarely responds to media requests.
In their June open letter, employees said that Musk’s public behavior was “a frequent source of distraction and embarrassment” for them and asked the company to “uphold clear repercussions for all unacceptable behavior.” Perhaps most egregiously, the employees dared to say that Musk’s tweets, which they called “de facto public statement[s] by the company,” were problematic.
According to a copy of the open letter in Holland-Thielen’s complaint, SpaceX employees included a comprehensive list of “unwelcome behavior on Elon’s Twitter,” which included tweets they considered to be “subtle sexual harassment,” sexual harassment, bullying of individuals and various marginalized groups, and “excessively vulgar and sexual content that is inappropriate for our workplace.”
“The content that Elon creates and promotes demonstrates tolerance, and even encouragement, of a workplace culture that is hostile to various marginalized and underrepresented groups,” employees wrote in their addendum to the open letter. “By staying silent on his public actions, taken on a platform which is considered official company communication, SpaceX and its executives have affirmed that Elon’s behavior is acceptable at our company.”
The addendum included more than 20 tweets from Musk commenting everything on Bill Gates’ weight (“in case u need to lose a boner fast”) to pronouns (“Pronouns are oppression” and “Pronouns suck”). The CEO had, unsurprisingly, made light of the claims of sexual harassment against him in May, tweeting things like, “Fine, if you touch my wiener, you can have a horse.”
He also gleefully referred to the scandal as “Elongate.”
The account of the fired SpaceX employees bears striking resemblance to what has happened at Twitter in recent days, where Musk has moved quickly to quash rebellion. On Tuesday, he fired workers who shitposted about him in Slack. On Wednesday, he told the employees he had left that they could choose to be part of the new “hardcore Twitter,” characterized by “long hours at high intensity” and “exceptional performance,” or leave.
Update 11/17/2022, 11:17 a.m. ET: This post has been updated with additional information from Holland-Thielen’s NLRB charge against SpaceX.