Fired SpaceX employees accuse the company of violating labor laws

NEW YORK (AP) — Several SpaceX employees who were fired after publishing an open letter calling out CEO Elon Musk’s behavior have filed complaints accusing the company of violating labor laws.

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

The letter was sent weeks after media reports emerged that Musk paid $250,000 to a flight attendant to drop a sexual harassment lawsuit against her. The billionaire has denied the allegations.

Employees in their letter urged SpaceX to uniformly implement its policy against unacceptable behavior and commit to a transparent process for responding to claims of misconduct. Days later, Paige Holland-Thielen and four other employees involved in organizing the letter were fired, according to the filing, which Holland-Thielen made to the regional NLRB office in California. Four additional employees were fired weeks later for their involvement in the letter.

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

Musk, who is CEO of Tesla and SpaceX and now runs Twitter, prefers to do things his own way even if that means running around rules and regulations. He is now fighting against the Civil Rights department, the California regulator that is suing Tesla for rampant racial discrimination.

Some see Musk’s management style as autocratic and demanding, as evidenced by the latest email he sent to Twitter staff giving them until Thursday evening to decide whether they want to remain part of the business. Musk wrote that employees “must be very hardcore” to build “breakthrough Twitter 2.0” and that long hours at high intensity will be necessary to succeed.

A number of engineers also said on Twitter they were fired last week after saying something critical of Kasturi, either in public on Twitter or in the internal message board for Twitter employees.

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

“It’s clear that this culture is created from the top,” he said.

Still, he says part of what he likes about the company is that anyone can raise an issue for leadership and be taken seriously.

“We drafted a letter to communicate with the executive staff about the terms and show how the lack of action creates a real obstacle to the long-term success of the mission,” said Holland-Thielen. “We never imagined that SpaceX would fire us to help the company succeed.”

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

After terminating the first set of employees, SpaceX allegedly interrogated dozens of others over the next two months in private meetings, telling them they could not disclose the conversations to anyone because of attorney-client privilege, according to the complaint. Four additional employees who helped draft or distribute letters were fired in July and August, the filing said, adding up to nine terminations.

“Management used this ‘end justifies the means’ philosophy to turn a blind eye to ongoing mistreatment, harassment, and abuse reported by my colleagues, many of whom were immediately encouraged and inspired by the words and actions of the CEO,” said Tom Moline, who was also fired from SpaceX after managing 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 created what he labels as hubris in the false notion that it’s “all about individual genius.”

“Powerful people can break the rules. They don’t think they are bound by the same conventions as other people,” said Pfeffer, criticizing Musk’s behavior. He said it shows the arrogance of Musk, one of the richest people in the world: “Does he think that is he only mortal?”

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Groves reported from Sioux Falls, South Dakota.

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