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In June, about 20 engineers were invited to a meeting hosted at the headquarters of rocket maker SpaceX. The subject of the conversation: the founder and CEO of the company, Elon Musk.
The day before, the company had moved to fire five employees who had written a letter asking SpaceX to condemn the “harmful behavior on Twitter” by Mr Musk, who had used the social network to mock a news report that SpaceX had settled a sexual harassment claim against him. Several of the engineers showed up at the meeting expecting a sympathetic ear, as some managers and executives had indicated they did not approve of Musk’s behavior.
But the previously unreported meeting quickly turned heated, according to two SpaceX employees who attended.
They said Jon Edwards, the vice president who led the meeting, characterized the letter as an extremist act and stated that the writers had been fired for distracting the company and confronting Musk. When asked if the CEO could sexually harass his workers with impunity, Edwards seemed unresponsive, the two employees said. But they said the meeting had a recurring theme: Musk could do whatever he wanted at the company.
“SpaceX is Elon and Elon is SpaceX,” the two recalled hearing Mr. Edwards declare.
SpaceX’s letter ultimately led to the firing of nine workers, according to the employees and their attorneys. On Wednesday, unfair labor practice charges were filed with the National Labor Relations Board on behalf of eight of those workers, arguing their firings were illegal.
The SpaceX case raises new questions about management practices at Musk’s companies, where there is little tolerance for dissent or labor organizing.
Tesla, the electric car maker Musk also runs, has resisted unionization attempts at its factories and is embroiled in legal action by workers who said they did not receive adequate warning before a firing in June.
After Musk acquired Twitter for $44 billion last month, he immediately fired executives before laying off half of Twitter’s 7,500 employees. This week, he had his subordinates review the internal communications and public tweets of Twitter employees, prompting the firing of dozens of critics.
Interviews with the eight SpaceX employees who brought the charges highlight Musk’s firm control over their workplaces, perhaps even beyond the restrictions of federal law. Six of those employees spoke anonymously for fear of retaliation and are not identified by name in labor board documents.
Legal experts said the lawwhich gives workers the right to assemble for “mutual aid or protection,” likely protected the wording of the letter which, in addition to addressing Musk’s online habits, urged SpaceX to enforce its harassment policies more effectively. .
“It was hard for me to believe what was happening, it was so blatant,” said Tom Moline, an engineer who had been at SpaceX for more than eight years when he was fired in June after helping organize the letter effort. “It feels like one of those times when employees have protections.”
SpaceX, Musk and Edwards did not respond to requests for comment on the former employees’ allegations.
Many of the roughly 11,000 employees who work at SpaceX do so because of the rocket maker’s mission. Founded by Musk in 2002 and headquartered in Hawthorne, California, the company seeks to send people to Mars and make humans a “multi-planetary” species.
That mission, however, has sometimes been undermined by distractions from its chief executive, several of the former employees who filed the employment charges said in interviews. Musk has been an outspoken critic of politicians and government agencies that have a say in federal contracts.
More disturbing, these employees said, has been a culture that appears to tolerate sexual harassment and gender discrimination.
In December, a former employee posted an essay describing multiple instances of being harassed and groped by coworkers. She said there had been little to no follow-up when she reported the incidents. After the essay surfaced, other employees began speaking out about what they viewed as a pattern of predatory behavior on the part of their male colleagues.
The company, which does not publish employee demographics but which workers say is dominated by men, has launched an internal audit of its harassment policies. the edge informed.
Then in May Inside information reported that SpaceX had paid $250,000 to a company flight attendant in 2018 after she accused Musk of exposing himself and proposing to her. (Mr. Musk later said on Twitter that the episode “It never happened.”) The story heightened internal tensions, with several employees saying in interviews they were dismayed when Musk joked about the allegations on Twitter.
The controversy also involved Gwynne Shotwell, SpaceX’s president and chief operating officer, whom many employees said they had considered an ally.
“At first I had a lot of respect for her,” said Paige Holland-Thielen, one of the engineers and letter organizers who were fired. “I would see myself reflected in what she has done.”
But several employees said their opinion of her, already tainted by the company’s response to previous harassment revelations, had been further tempered after Ms Shotwell sent a company-wide email saying that he did not believe the accusations against Mr. Musk. “I have worked closely with him for 20 years and have never seen or heard anything resembling these allegations,” she wrote. The email was reported previously on CNBC.
Within a few days, the employees began working on an open letter in response.
Despite their frustrations, some participants said, they hoped to convey a desire to work with executives on a solution. Musk and SpaceX were known to be strongly anti-union (the rocket maker requires managers to receive training on how to discourage union activity) and employees did not want executives or other colleagues to see their effort as the start of a union drive. .
“Every time someone mentioned something or shared something from a real union, I was like, ‘Hey, let’s save that for another conversation,’” said Ms. Holland-Thielen, who had taken the engineering leader training course, hoping to eventually become a manager.
Letter writing followed two tracks. One occurred on workers’ personal software and was only visible to a few dozen employees. The other occurred on a visible-to-anyone collaboration platform at SpaceX, where workers brainstormed “action items.”
One proposal said that SpaceX should disclose any other harassment claims against Musk; another called for a public statement from the company making it clear that Ms Shotwell’s email about the allegations did not represent the views of all employees.
Ms Shotwell was understanding even though she had been singled out. “As always, I appreciate reading and hearing ideas to help make SpaceX better,” she wrote on the internal working platform, according to a screenshot seen by The New York Times.
The group distributed the letter on June 15, first to Ms. Shotwell and several other executives, and then on various company messaging channels.
“Elon’s behavior in the public sphere is a frequent source of distraction and embarrassment for us,” the document said.
The initial response seemed favourable. Internal data showed that more than 1,000 people viewed the letter within a few hours, the employees said. More than 400 signed it, many of them anonymously.
The managers were also understanding. Mr Edwards, the vice president, said in a meeting after the letter was released that two of his three proposals were “big ideas,” according to meeting minutes shared internally and seen by The Times. He said a third idea, for SpaceX to break away from Musk’s “personal brand,” was “more complicated.”
But at the highest levels of the company, the response soon turned antagonistic, employees said. Within hours, Ms. Shotwell emailed Mr. Moline and Ms. Holland-Thielen with comments from an anonymous co-worker who disagreed with the letter, saying it was distracting. Information previously informed in the email.
“Please stop flooding employee communication channels immediately,” Ms Shotwell wrote in her email, which she copied from senior company officials. She added: “I will consider ignoring my email to be insubordination. Instead, focus on your work.”
The next morning, the media reported on the open letter. That afternoon, Mr. Moline, Ms. Holland-Thielen and three other employees were separately contacted by human resources and told they were going to be fired. An official cited his role in creating and distributing the letter, four of the employees said.
Ms Shotwell joined those conversations remotely, emphasizing that the workers had wasted a great deal of the company’s time.
The employees were stunned. “We were really trying to make this as palatable as possible to the reasonable minds at SpaceX,” Ms Holland-Thielen said. One of the employees’ lawyers, Anne Shaver of Lieff Cabraser, said the company had “retaliated brutally” against them.
Ms. Shotwell did not respond to a request for comment for this article.
Wilma Liebman, who was president of the National Labor Relations Board during President Barack Obama, said a letter seeking clarification about a company’s sexual harassment policies was generally protected by federal employment law. She said the company could argue that the letter’s writers were seeking to criticize Musk, an activity that is not necessarily protected, rather than to improve her workplace. But she said the labor board would likely disagree because Musk’s posts that employees criticized could be seen as creating a hostile work environment.
News of the layoffs spread quickly, workers said, and executives and managers soon took a much harder line. The following week, his manager told an employee he had enthusiastically shared the open letter with his coworkers to choose between his concerns in the workplace and getting to Mars, according to the employee.
The workers said the company fired this employee and two others in July and August after investigating their role in the letter and that it also fired a ninth employee involved in the letter in August, citing poor performance, which the employee disputed.
Mr Moline and Ms Holland-Thielen said the abruptness of their dismissals made them suspect that Ms Shotwell had caved in under the pressure.
“I thought he was doing a pretty good job protecting us and defending us against some of the worst impulses that Elon and others could have had,” Moline said. “Finally realizing that she wasn’t that savior, that broke the trust for me.”
audio produced by Jack D’Isidoro.