SpaceX illegally fired nine people this year in retaliation for comments critical of founder Elon Musk and the company’s culture, a former employee alleged in a complaint to federal regulators.
The terminated SpaceX workers include authors of an open letter protesting “inappropriate, disparaging, sexually charged comments on Twitter” by Musk, according to the Wednesday filing with the National Labor Relations Board. The complaint says the workers were fired “for engaging in the core concerted protected activity of speaking up against SpaceX’s failure and refusal to address the culture of sexism, harassment and discrimination.”
The move ratchets up the tension over an unusually public incident for the closely held rocket launch company. SpaceX fired several workers in June over the open letter, which called Musk’s behavior “a frequent source of distraction and embarrassment for us,” and asked SpaceX leadership to condemn and distance itself from Musk’s “personal brand.”
The fallout prompted a heated internal meeting, according to the New York Times, which earlier reported the NLRB filing. In that meeting, some workers pressed a manager about a recent report that the company had settled a sexual harassment claim against Musk, according to the publication.
U.S. law prohibits companies from retaliating against workers for taking collective action related to their working conditions, with or without a union.
Claims filed with the NLRB are investigated by regional officials, who, if they find merit in the allegations and can’t secure a settlement, issue a complaint on behalf of the labor board’s general counsel. Judicial rulings can be appealed to the NLRB in Washington, and then to federal court. The agency has the authority to order companies to reinstate fired workers and provide back pay, but generally can’t hold executives personally liable for alleged wrongdoing or issue any punitive damages.
The NLRB ruled last year that Musk’s electric-vehicle company, Tesla, repeatedly violated labor law, citing the firing of a union activist and a threatening tweet sent by Musk, among other violations. Tesla has denied wrongdoing and is appealing that ruling in federal court.