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SpaceX workers say they were fired for complaining about Elon Musk's tweets

Lawsuit filed by fired SpaceX employees
SpaceX employees file lawsuit alleging they were fired for criticizing CEO Elon Musk 06:07

SpaceX executives illegally fired nine workers who objected to CEO Elon Musk's tweets, alleges a complaint recently filed with the nation's labor board.

After a group of workers this summer complained that Musk's frequent tweeting of insults, sexual puns and political statements reflected badly on the space exploration company, executives targeted the employees for dismissal, the workers charge. According to the workers, five of them were fired immediately and four more were let go over the ensuing two months.

"It was honestly shocking to see that kind of reaction from an organization that prides itself on having employees speak up about any issue, whether it's technical or cultural, and gives them the power to drive that change," Tom Moline, one of the dismissed workers, told CBS News on Tuesday.

Moline and Paige Holland-Thielen, another worker fired from SpaceX, filed formal complaints with the National Labor Relations Board seeking to get their jobs back. Lawyers filed complaints on behalf of six other former SpaceX employees, who are remaining anonymous.

SpaceX "missed an incredible opportunity to improve the company culture and instead just fired them. And that's just tragic. I mean, these are the type of workers you want," Anne Shaver, a partner with Lieff Cabraser Heimann & Bernstein who is representing the workers behind the complaint, told CBS MoneyWatch recently. 

Musk's management of SpaceX, Tesla and Twitter, which he now owns, has come under scrutiny after his move to take control of the social media company. At Twitter, employees also said they lost their jobs after disagreeing with Musk's strategies publicly and privately. 

Harassment allegations 

In May, allegations surfaced that Musk had exposed himself to a SpaceX flight attendant, and that the company gave her a $250,000 settlement in exchange for her silence. Musk denied the report, challenging the accuser to "describe anything at all" about his body "that isn't known to the public." He gleefully suggested naming the scandal "Elongate" and went on to tell another Twitter user, "Fine, if you touch my wiener, you can have a horse." 

Other comments the CEO has tweeted include: "Jack in the Box should do double duty as a sperm clinic"; a picture of dinosaurs mating; and various posts opposing the use of pronouns in written communications to indicate someone's gender.

That freewheeling style allows bad behavior to go unchallenged at the company, said Moline, who described the SpaceX head as "very much off-the-cuff, and all focused on that mission ... of getting to Mars as quickly as possible."

"This allows him, and sets the example for management within the company, to basically ignore anything that could potentially get in the way of that mission — whether it's federal labor laws [or] the sexual harassment of women within the workforce," Moline told CBS News.

It was against this backdrop of harassment allegations from a SpaceX flight attendant and a female former engineer at the company that some employees spoke out. In an open letter drafted in June, they asked SpaceX to clarify its worker conduct policies and to apply those rules uniformly across the company. Separately, they asked SpaceX to "condemn" Musk's "harmful Twitter behavior."

Elon Musk demands Twitter staff "commit to long hours" or leave 09:03

"Elon's behavior in the public sphere is a frequent source of distraction and embarrassment for us," workers wrote in the letter, a copy of which was filed with paperwork with the NLRB on Wednesday. 

"As our CEO and most prominent spokesperson, Elon is seen as the face of SpaceX — every Tweet that Elon sends is a de facto public statement by the company. It is critical to make clear to our teams and to our potential talent pool that his messaging does not reflect our work, our mission, or our values. SpaceX's current systems and culture do not live up to its stated values," they wrote.

Letter to Musk a "distraction" 

On June 16, the day after the letter circulated, SpaceX fired Tom Moline, a senior engineer who helped lead the effort to draft the missive, along with four other employees, according to the NLRB complaint. The company in July and August fired four other workers involved in circulating the letter.

The same day Moline and four others were dismissed, SpaceX President Gwynne Shotwell called the letter a "distraction" in an email, saying the company had "no need for this kind of overreaching activism."

"The letter, solicitations and general process made employees feel uncomfortable, intimidated and bullied, and/or angry because the letter pressured them to sign onto something that did not reflect their views," Shotwell said in the email, which was filed with the NLRB along with the employees' complaint. 

"We performed an investigation and have terminated a number of employees involved," she said. 

Shotwell was on the call with human resources on which Moline and four others were fired, the engineer told CBS News. 

Under federal law, it's illegal to retaliate against workers who try to improve their conditions, including by collectively raising concerns about the workplace.If the labor board agrees that the workers were fired illegally, it could order SpaceX to rehire them and offer back pay.

A lawyer for the workers also did not rule out pursuing a private lawsuit against the company, alleging that SpaceX broke several laws when it fired them, including federal and state laws against discrimination.

Christopher Cardaci, head of the SpaceX legal department, did not respond to an email seeking comment.

Musk warns Twitter employees of difficult times ahead, imposes drastic changes 04:30

Do rules apply to Musk?

Jeffery Pfeffer, a professor who specializes in organizational behavior at Stanford University's business school, told the Associated Press that the allegations were hardly a surprise given Musk's leadership style at Twitter. Musk recently eliminated half the staff of the social media company and imposed an ultimatum on the remainder, telling workers they need to "be extremely hardcore" and work long hours to rebuild the platform.

Musk's success at Tesla and SpaceX have created what Pfeffer labeled as hubris under the false notion that it was "all about individual genius."

"Powerful people get to break the rules. They don't think they are bound by the same conventions as other people," Pfeffer said. He added that it showed the arrogance of Musk, one of the world's richest men: "Why would he think he is a mere mortal?"

Free speech, but not for all

While Musk champions free speech and openness, workers said their firing in response to raising concerns was a shock.

"Part of what was supposed to be so great about SpaceX was that any person at any level could escalate issues to leadership and be taken seriously and treated with respect," Paige Holland-Thielen, another of the fired workers, said in a statement. "We never imagined that SpaceX would fire us for trying to help the company succeed."

The workers were dismayed at what they saw as a reversal from Shotwell, who was initially supportive, Moline told the New York Times, which first reported the labor charges.

"I thought she was doing a good job protecting and advocating for us against some of the worst impulses that Elon and others might have had," he told the outlet. "Finally realizing that she wasn't that savior — that broke down the trust for me."

The Associated Press contributed reporting.

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