Fired SpaceX employees accuse company of violating labor law

NEW YORK (AP) — Several SpaceX employees who were fired after circulating an open letter denouncing CEO Elon Musk’s conduct have filed a complaint accusing the company of violating labor laws.

The complaint, filed Wednesday with the National Labor Relations Board, details the aftermath of what allegedly happened inside SpaceX after employees distributed the letter in June, which among other things called on executives to condemn Musk’s public behavior on Twitter — including the frivolous making allegations that he sexually harassed a flight attendant – and holding everyone accountable for unacceptable behavior.

The letter was sent weeks after a report surfaced in the media that Musk paid $250,000 to the flight attendant to quash a potential sexual harassment lawsuit against him. The billionaire has denied the allegations.

In their letter, employees urged SpaceX to uniformly enforce its policy against unacceptable behavior and to commit to a transparent process for responding to claims of misconduct. A day later, Paige Holland-Thielen and four other employees who participated in organizing the letter were fired, according to the filing filed by Holland-Thielen with a regional NLRB office in California. Four additional employees were fired weeks later for their involvement in the letter.

A company spokesperson did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Musk, who is the CEO of Tesla and SpaceX and currently runs Twitter, prefers to do things his own way, even if it means going against rules and regulations. He is currently in a defiant battle with the Civil Rights Department, a California regulator that is suing Tesla for rampant racial discrimination.

Some consider Musk’s management style autocratic and demanding, as evidenced by a recent email he sent to Twitter employees, giving them until Thursday evening to decide if they want to remain part of the company. Musk wrote that employees “need to be extremely hardcore” to build “a breakthrough Twitter 2.0” and that long hours at high intensity will be necessary for success.

A number of engineers also announced on Twitter that they had been fired last week after saying something critical of Musk, either publicly on Twitter or on an internal message board for Twitter employees.

In a statement, Holland-Thiel said that as a female engineer at SpaceX, she experienced “deep cultural issues” and comforted colleagues who had experienced similar issues.

“It was clear that this culture was born at the highest level,” she said.

Still, she said part of what she loved about the company was that anyone could escalate issues to leadership and be taken seriously.

“We drafted the letter to communicate with the executive staff on their terms and to show how their lack of action created tangible barriers to the long-term success of the mission,” Holland-Thiel said. “We never thought SpaceX would fire us for trying to help the company succeed.”

The layoffs coincide with Musk’s $44 billion buyout from Twitter. Around the same time, the billionaire used a sexual term to mock Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates’ belly and also posted a poop emoji during an online discussion with then-Twitter CEO Parag Agrawal.

After terminating the first batch of employees, SpaceX allegedly questioned dozens of others in private meetings over the next two months, telling them not to reveal those conversations to anyone else due to attorney-client privilege, the indictment said. Four additional employees who helped draft or share the letter were laid off in July and August, the filing said, making nine terminations in total.

“Management used this ‘ends justify the means’ philosophy to turn a blind eye to the ongoing mistreatment, harassment and abuse reported by my colleagues, much of which was directly encouraged and inspired by the words and actions of the CEO,” said Tom Moline, who was also fired from SpaceX after organizing the letter.

Jeffery Pfeffer, a professor who specializes in organizational behavior at Stanford University’s business school, said the allegations were hardly a surprise given Musk’s leadership style on Twitter. Musk’s success at companies like Tesla and SpaceX has led to what he labeled overconfidence under the false idea that it was “all about individual genius.”

“Powerful people are allowed to break the rules. They don’t think they’re bound by the same conventions as other people,” Pfeffer said, criticizing Musk’s behavior. He said it showed the arrogance of Musk, one of the world’s richest men: “Why would he think he’s a mere mortal?”

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Groves reported from Sioux Falls, South Dakota.

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