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SpaceX likely violated labor law by firing workers, experts say

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On Friday, SpaceX fired a group of employees involved in drafting an open letter to corporate executives criticizing CEO Elon Musk — and labor lawyers now say the layoffs may violate US labor laws. The letter circulated Thursday, calling for a stronger anti-harassment policy at SpaceX and a more subdued Twitter presence from Musk. Shortly after the letter was published, at least five employees were fired.

It’s unclear if any of the fired workers will attempt to sue the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB). But when they do, lawyers say they have a strong case. “To be covered, an action has to be coordinated (certainly the case here) and it has to be related to working conditions,” said Charlotte Garden, a law professor at the University of Seattle who wrote on employee expression for the Economic Policy Institute earlier this year.

The hardest part of retaliation is often proving that an employee was really fired in retaliation for speaking out, but SpaceX has made it easy to show the connection. In her note to employees after the layoffs, SpaceX president Gwynne Shotwell made it clear that the employees had been fired specifically for their involvement in the letter, which she described as “exaggerated activism.” Even if SpaceX tried to deny it, the simple timing of the firings — which come less than 24 hours after the letter itself — makes the connection hard to ignore.

“This could very much be seen as retaliation for speaking out,” said Mary Inman, a whistleblower attorney at Constantine Cannon. “What does this say for employees? It basically says: we don’t want to hear from you.”

SpaceX did not respond to a request for comment.

For a legal challenge, the main hurdle would be to show that the letter itself is made up of employees getting together to discuss benefits, but the letter’s emphasis on corporate goals and the “no motherfucker” policy seems to fit that model. There are exceptions if speech is vulgar, abusive, or aimed at customers, but none of them easily fit the circumstances of the SpaceX case.

“It seems to me to be a letter that is mainly about working conditions,” Garden told The edge† “I think the NLRB would see it that way too.”

If the case is successful, SpaceX could be forced to reinstate the fired workers with back wages. In particular, the protection would not apply to managers and supervisors, who are not subject to the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA).

The issues raised in the letter also fit into long-standing concerns about harassment within SpaceX. In December, five former SpaceX employees came forward with complaints about specific harassment issues they believed had been mishandled. A former intern filed suit against SpaceX in 2020, claiming the company retaliated against her after reporting a harassment incident. The employee letter itself makes the same point, saying, “recent events are not isolated incidents; they are emblematic of a wider culture.”

It wouldn’t be the first time one of Musk’s companies has violated US labor law. After a heated battle over attempts to unite Tesla’s Fremont plant under the United Auto Workers, the NLRB ordered Tesla to reinstate a fired worker with back wages. Musk was also ordered to delete a tweet implying that unionization would mean the end of stock options at the company — although, more than a year after the warrant was issued, the tweet stays live

Already, Communications Workers of America (CWA) is using the SpaceX fires as more fuel for its ongoing effort to organize tech workers. “Elon Musk says he is committed to free speech — except when his employees exercise their legally protected right to speak out about their working conditions,” the CWA said in a statement. “We hope this will be a rallying point for employees at SpaceX, as it is at Google and Activision.”


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