Elon Musk — the CEO of Tesla and SpaceX and owner of X, formerly Twitter — speaks during the New York Times annual DealBook summit in New York City, Nov. 29, 2023.
Michael M. Santiago | Getty Images
The U.S. National Labor Relations Board has filed a complaint against SpaceX, alleging that Elon Musk’s defense contractor illegally fired eight employees after they wrote an open letter critical of Musk and accused the workplace of being selectively permissive of sexual harassment.
CNBC obtained a copy of the NLRB complaint via a Freedom of Information Act request. The complaint says the eight employees of SpaceX “engaged in concerted activities with other employees for the purposes of mutual aid or protection by drafting and distributing an open letter” detailing their workplace concerns.
In their open letter, the SpaceX employees wrote that Musk’s “behavior in the public sphere is a frequent source of distraction and embarrassment for us.” They wrote that his divisive posts on social media, as well as alleged sexual misconduct on his part, went against SpaceX’s own “no ass—-s” and “zero tolerance” policies.
The employees’ open letter was posted internally at SpaceX, after Business Insider reported that Musk had propositioned and exposed himself to a flight attendant on one of the company’s private jets in 2016, leading to a sexual harassment claim against the CEO, which SpaceX reportedly settled for $250,000 in 2018.
Musk has denied the sexual misconduct allegations, calling them “wild accusations.” After the report by Business Insider, SpaceX COO and President Gwynne Shotwell also defended Musk against allegations of sexual harassment.
After the then-SpaceX employees penned the open letter, the NLRB found that company management engaged in “interrogation” of the authors and “made coercive statements” to them, including “inviting” the employees to “quit if they disagreed with the behavior of Chief Executive Officer Elon Musk.” Eventually, the NLRB complaint says, SpaceX illegally fired those employees over the protected speech.
Musk bills himself as a free speech advocate or absolutist. However, as CNBC has previously reported, his companies have repeatedly sought to stifle others’ speech when it has been critical of Musk or his businesses. For example, under Musk’s ownership, the social network X, formerly known as Twitter, has suspended accounts of users sharing records or remarks critical of Musk or his companies, including software developer Travis Brown, and Aaron Greenspan, founder of PlainSite, an online database of legal and public records.
Laurie Burgess, an attorney representing the SpaceX employees who were fired after publishing their open letter, told CNBC her clients have also filed a formal complaint with the California Civil Rights Department alleging “failure to correct sexual harassment at SpaceX.”
SpaceX has significant operations and headquarters in Hawthorne, California.
SpaceX did not respond to requests for comment, and the California Civil Rights Department did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
A spokesperson for the NLRB told CNBC via email on Wednesday that the labor agency’s Los Angeles regional director issued the consolidated complaint against SpaceX on Wednesday, after investigating ex-employees’ allegations.
That NLRB regional office will now seek a settlement between SpaceX and the former employees who were dismissed after speaking out. If they don’t settle, they will proceed to a hearing before an NLRB administrative law judge starting March 5 in Los Angeles. Such a judge’s decision is not necessarily final and could be appealed to the board of the NLRB and federal appeals court.
Read the full complaint from the federal agency here: