back to article SpaceX accused of firing employees critical of free speech fan Elon Musk

The US National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) has issued a complaint against SpaceX, alleging it dismissed workers for being critical of the company's boss, Elon Musk, among 37 other unfair labor practices. According to the complaint [PDF], the matter stems from the company's response to an open letter sent to SpaceX's …

  1. Steve Button Silver badge

    Don't get this confused with free speech.

    If I say something like "Lockdowns caused more harm than good" or "schools should not have been closed" or "I support the Canadian truckers" then that's a free speech issue, and I should be allowed to say it without fear of losing my job, or having my bank account frozen by the government.

    On the other hand, if I say publicly "My boss is an asshole and should resign"... well, expect consequences.

    I know this site hates Musk, but it's a bit much to come at him on the free speech angle. Considering Twitter has been pretty much the only large social media site where you could have said some of the above without getting your account shut down, for breaking "community guidelines". (probably not so much nowadays, but I've not been on social media in the last year so I wouldn't know!?)

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: Don't get this confused with free speech.

      As the political left love to say, free speech is not speech without consequences.

    2. pdh

      Re: Don't get this confused with free speech.

      What you said. Freedom of speech in the U.S. derives from the First Amendment, which says that Congress shall make no law abridging the freedom of speech. It does *not* say that you can't be fired for calling your boss an asshole. There may be other laws that protect you in such a case, but it's not a freedom of speech issue.

      1. jmch Silver badge

        Re: Don't get this confused with free speech.

        They weren't fired for calling their boss an arsehole, they were fired for (correctly IMHO) that their boss's behaviour was having a detrimental effect on the company.

        So no, it's not a free speech issue, it's a labour relations issue, but Space are still in the wrong

        1. Michael Wojcik Silver badge

          Re: Don't get this confused with free speech.

          It's not legally a free-speech issue. It is ideologically a free-speech issue, because of Musk's posturing about being a "free-speech absolutist". It's another of the many cases where his hypocrisy is obvious.

    3. Nightkiller

      Re: Don't get this confused with free speech.

      This is a shocking indictment of one trick pony writers.

    4. simonlb Silver badge

      Re: Don't get this confused with free speech.

      I know this site hates Musk

      We don't necessarily hate him, but, well, he is a bit of a dick and does talk quite a lot of bollocks.

      1. Steve Button Silver badge

        Re: Don't get this confused with free speech.

        Thumbs up for that. I agree. The "pedo guy" thing really sealed it for me. Steve Jobs was also a bit of a dick, but Musk is way worse by many accounts. I also think he's an interesting character.

        I like what he's done with community notes on Twitter (I don't use it any more, but I see it mentioned in SubStack sometimes), which means we get a much more balanced view. In the last few days the Associated Press has been "fact checked" by community notes for making out that the president of Harvard was hounded out because right-wing nutcases are using plagiarism as a weapon. In fact you'd expect anyone committing plagiarism on this scale to have to resign (even an undergraduate would get booted for this level). This would not happen on Facebook, LinkedIN or the BBC, where they would just imply "she had to resign because racism".

        So, yeah he's a dick. But he's also standing up for free speech. Not that I'm going to be working for him any time soon, even if asked.

        He also talks a lot of bollocks, particularly about AI and being in a simulation... but he also says some interesting stuff. He's pushing back on DEI and equality of outcome (which is very bad if you follow it to conclusion) rather than equality of opportunity (which is very good). He's not a fan of "woke"... meaning punishing people in a performative way for having an unauthorised opinion, including taking away their livelihood.

        It does seem a weird world where students can call for the genocide of Jews without reprisals, but get ejected for calling a biological man "him". Which one is more harmful? Is it worse to get actually beaten up, or get hurt feelings?

        It's good to have people who think differently, and are willing to shake things up a bit sometimes. And call out the BS when they see it.

        1. Someone Else Silver badge

          Re: Don't get this confused with free speech.

          He's not a fan of "woke"... meaning punishing people in a performative way for having an unauthorised opinion, including taking away their livelihood.

          Wait...what? Isn't firing a bunch of people for criticizing El Muskrat "punishing people in a performative way for having an unauthorised [sic] opinion, including taking away their livelihood"? You "freeze peach" absolutists really need to listen to yourselves, lest you continue to spout gibberish.

          And yes, you have the right to spout gibberish. And it appears you rigorously practice that right.

        2. Bebu Silver badge
          Big Brother

          Re: Don't get this confused with free speech.

          《He also talks a lot of bollocks, .. but he also says some interesting stuff.》

          So did Foul Ole Ron and the rest of the Canting Crew in Terry Pratchett's Discworld . :)

          Carl Sagan wrote this in Broca's Brain: Reflections on the Romance of Science

          But the fact that some geniuses were laughed at does not imply that all who are laughed at are geniuses. They laughed at Columbus, they laughed at Fulton, they laughed at the Wright brothers. But they also laughed at Bozo the Clown.

          In this case I put my money on Bozo for the win.

          1. Michael Wojcik Silver badge

            Re: Don't get this confused with free speech.

            And, of course, they were quite correct to laugh at Columbus. He was wrong. And the outcome of his error was not "discovering the New World", but revealing the New World to the European aristocracy. The European merchant class was already well aware of the existence of the Americas. Giovanni Caboto ("John Cabot") sent Colón a letter taking him to task for letting Ferdinand and Isabella in on the secret (with predictably terrible consequences), and Basque fishermen had been fishing cod from the Grand Banks for centuries.

            Columbus was by no means a genius. And neither is Musk.

      2. aerogems Silver badge
        FAIL

        Re: Don't get this confused with free speech.

        He's demonstrated on numerous occasions that he is not deserving of anyone's respect. This is just one example. There's also

        1) How he used to go after Tesla customers who talked to the press and said anything other than a full-throated endorsement

        2) The "pedo guy" incident

        3) The union busting efforts in the Netherlands

        4) The rampant racism going on in Tesla plants, which he hasn't so much as publicly condemned

        5) The rampant sexism going on in Tesla plants, which he hasn't so much as publicly condemned

        6) Tesla's efforts to deny injured workers proper health care

        7) SpaceX's efforts to deny injured workers proper health care

        8) The union busting efforts in the US

        9) Two words, "funding secured"

        10) Reopening Tesla plants in violation of county health ordinances in the middle of a pandemic

        11) Sexually harassing multiple female employees at different companies, badgering them into having his children

        12) The animal abuses at Neura-Link

        13) The threats to human health and safety at Neura-Link (transporting hazardous biological waste without proper safety precautions)

        14) The claims that a fully autonomous vehicle was only a year away... several years running

        15) Not paying former Twitter employees money they were promised/legally owed

        16) Basically everything else about how he handled the Twitter takeover

        17) Telling advertisers to "go fuck [them]selves"

        18) The numerous antisemitic comments he's made on Xitter

        19) The echoing of The Great Replacement Theory on Xitter

        20) Replatforming pieces of shit like Andrew Tate and Alex Jones (the latter Xitler himself said he'd never allow back on Xitter because of the Sandy Hook controversy, and Xitler trying to pretend like he's a concerned parent)

        That's just off the top of my head. I'm sure if I did a little digging to refresh my memory I could come up with plenty more.

        1. Bebu Silver badge
          Windows

          Re: Don't get this confused with free speech.

          1) How he used to go after Tesla customers who talked to the press and said anything other than a full-throated endorsement

          2) The "pedo guy" incident

          ...

          20) Replatforming pieces of shit like Andrew Tate and Alex Jones (the latter Xitler himself said he'd never allow back on Xitter because of the Sandy Hook controversy, and Xitler trying to pretend like he's a concerned parent)

          That's supertruck load and no mistake. Are the appalling billionaires club running a first to 100 obscenities competition or some dismally perverse tontine?

          (2) did it for me.

        2. Ian Johnston Silver badge

          Re: Don't get this confused with free speech.

          1) How he used to go after Tesla customers who talked to the press and said anything other than a full-throated endorsement

          How about the Tesla customer service rep he fired after she (which may be significant) correctly told a reviewer that prewarming batteries was a good idea in freezing condition but he still didn't get the range the company had promised him?

          1. aerogems Silver badge
            Pint

            Re: Don't get this confused with free speech.

            I did say that it was just the things I could come up with off the top of my head at the time I was writing that post. Trying to compile an exhaustive list of his asshole behavior would be a full-time job that no sane person would want. I feel like I need one of these just thinking about it. ============>

      3. Bebu Silver badge
        Big Brother

        Re: Don't get this confused with free speech.

        《he is a bit of a dick and does talk quite a lot of bollocks.》

        Sounds like he is the complete wedding tackle with builtin sound system.

    5. doublelayer Silver badge

      Re: Don't get this confused with free speech.

      So let me see if I understand your statement correctly:

      If someone says something that you agree with then it's a free speech issue and you should be allowed to say it without fear of losing your job. If it's something different, which you probably disagree with, then it's not a free speech issue and bring on the consequences.

      Sorry, if your boss can fire you for one thing you said, they can fire you for other things as well. Consequences always apply. The only exceptions are when labor law restricts them, which could be in everything or not. In the U.S., those laws are not strong, meaning that you can be fired for lots of things you may choose to post. This means that I don't expect these workers will get anything in this case, as they can be fired for the statements their managers did not like. It does not mean the views you prefer would or should get to bypass this reality unless the law is changed. I'm having trouble seeing your distinction between what counts and what doesn't other than you agree with one and don't with another.

      1. pdh

        Re: Don't get this confused with free speech.

        The Bill of Rights (first ten amendments to the Constitution) are exclusively concerned with limiting the government's power. Nothing in the Bill of Rights restricts citizens (including employers); it's simply a list of limitations on what the government can do. One of those limitations is that the government cannot restrict your freedom of speech. The First Amendment simply does not apply to individuals -- it says so right there on the box -- "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances."

        1. doublelayer Silver badge

          Re: Don't get this confused with free speech.

          I didn't disagree with that. In fact, I was using that as part of my statement that there are always consequences, and that the free speech legislation in the US does not prohibit companies from using employees' speech as a reason to fire them. What I asked about was why the original poster thought their opinions should be excluded on a free speech basis, but that the people in this article don't qualify for the same. I think the law doesn't give an exception to either, which is internally consistent, but their post did not have a similar consistency, nor even an argument for why their exception should be specially excluded from consequences.

          1. Steve Button Silver badge

            Re: Don't get this confused with free speech.

            I'm not sure I follow you.

            What I objected to was the headline "SpaceX accused of firing employees critical of free speech fan Elon Musk" which kind of implies that Musk is a fan of free speech, but is still firing people for expressing their free speech. I think the headline got that wrong, and he had every right to fire them. Almost would have been rude not to fire them. If they had taken out the "free speech fan" part, I would have no beef with the article.

            1. doublelayer Silver badge

              Re: Don't get this confused with free speech.

              Musk has spoken frequently about "free speech", that is to say, not government restrictions on speech, but others' reactions to that speech which he doesn't like. Now, he is reacting to others' speech that he doesn't like. The inconsistency is common. I think he has the right to do what he did, but it is inconsistent with his complaints when others were treated similarly. I interpreted the headline to be referring to his previous statements about speech and its consequences, which he has contradicted numerous times including now.

            2. John Brown (no body) Silver badge

              Re: Don't get this confused with free speech.

              "which kind of implies that Musk is a fan of free speech"

              It's not an implication. It's a statement of fact taken from Musks own utterings on the subject. He's stated many times that he's not only in favour of free speech, he is in fact a "free speech absolutist", which in effect means anything goes. All of that is quite different to the "Right to Free Speech" as it's usually mis-quoted from The Constitution. Hence the hypocrisy in how he deals with people who say things he doesn't like.

            3. Anonymous Coward
              Anonymous Coward

              Re: Don't get this confused with free speech.

              > I'm not sure I follow you.

              I called it!

        2. Anonymous Coward
          Anonymous Coward

          Re: Don't get this confused with free speech.

          Don't forget to send this to EM, it doesn't seem to have read the Bill of Rights.

          But anyway, he is a bloody foreigner, so it is to be expected, isn't it?

        3. Michael Wojcik Silver badge

          Re: Don't get this confused with free speech.

          Nothing in the Bill of Rights restricts citizens (including employers); it's simply a list of limitations on what the government can do.

          This is wrong, or at least inaccurate. It's established jurisprudence that the rights enumerated in the Bill of Rights also cannot be constrained by a citizen's deployment of state power — notably, by using the courts to infringe on those rights. That's a critical distinction from the common but incorrect inference that the Bill of Rights applies only to actions initiated by the state.

      2. Steve Button Silver badge

        Re: Don't get this confused with free speech.

        Here's the distinction. And it's not about what I agree with.

        If I call my boss an asshole publicly, I would expect to get into trouble. Probably gross misconduct for bringing the company into disrepute. I would probably expect to get fired. Not much I can do about it.

        If I send money to Canadian truckers, I would expect nothing to happen. It's none of their business. It's not brining the company into disrepute. I would take them to a tribunal. I know that this *has* happened to some Canadians.

        If I happened to work for His Muskiness, then I would not publicly call him an asshole. Even though I actually think he is, a bit.

        If I said "children at six months old should take Covid and Flu jabs" (which I don't agree with) I would also expect no action. It's just an opinion.

        1. Anonymous Coward
          Anonymous Coward

          Re: Don't get this confused with free speech.

          Ahhh. An anti-vaxxer too?

          It all makes sense now...

      3. Ian Johnston Silver badge

        Re: Don't get this confused with free speech.

        Sorry, if your boss can fire you for one thing you said, they can fire you for other things as well.

        Perhaps, but not for any other thing you say. Whistleblowing, for example, is protected as is union organising.

      4. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward

        Re: Don't get this confused with free speech.

        It's good of you to point out the fallacy of his argument, but his post was so simplistic, I'm sure he won't understand you.

    6. Marty McFly Silver badge
      Thumb Up

      Re: Don't get this confused with free speech.

      Spot-on. Free speech & the Constitution is a limit on the powers of government. It has nothing to do with the limits imposed by a company, which an employee voluntarily accepts in exchange for a paycheck.

      Ask Colin Kapernick how his 'free speech' is working out for his career. Yes, his situation is a bit different than talking smack about the boss. You don't get to publicly run your mouth while representing your employer, ever.

    7. aerogems Silver badge
      Boffin

      Re: Don't get this confused with free speech.

      Except that's 1) not what happened, and 2) not what the law says.

      What happened is these employees raised several legitimate concerns about the workplace and then attempted to initiate negotiations with the company to improve working conditions. Something that is guaranteed under the National Labor Relations Act. The NLRB doesn't just take up every case people submit, so there was obviously a lot more to it than just someone saying, "My boss is a puss leaking anal wart."

      While I'm at it, free speech doesn't apply in the workplace. In the US you absolutely could be fired for saying any of those things and there wouldn't be anything you could do about it legally as far as federal agencies are concerned. A few states have laws against retaliation for political views, but even then it'd probably be hard to make a case for any of your examples. Free speech only means that the government can't punish you for what you say. So, if you call Margorie Taylor Green a refrigerator suffering from steroid induced psychosis, the government can't throw you in jail because she's (inexplicably) a member of Congress. I happen to agree that free speech should apply to all aspects of life, but if you have my agreeing with you and a nickel, that means you have a nickel.

      1. cornetman Silver badge

        Re: Don't get this confused with free speech.

        > What happened is these employees raised several legitimate concerns about the workplace and then attempted to initiate negotiations with the company to improve working conditions.

        Well they did it in public in a manner that could be interpreted as unnecessarily antagonistic to the management of SpaceX, so that might have consequences to how they are protected under the law.

        There is a line and they might have crossed it. On one side of the line there is "Our boss is a w*nker and we can't work with him". On the other side is "Business practises in this company are negatively impacting our effectiveness and we believe that they should change for the betterment of the company". One is a criticism of policy, the other is an ad hominem. IANAL, but it seems to me that expressing the latter doesn't excuse you expressing the former.

        1. aerogems Silver badge

          Re: Don't get this confused with free speech.

          No, they didn't. Someone else leaked the letter to the press, the authors didn't distribute it outside the company. Employees are guaranteed the right to band together to collectively bargain.

          1. cornetman Silver badge

            Re: Don't get this confused with free speech.

            > No, they didn't. Someone else leaked the letter to the press, the authors didn't distribute it outside the company. Employees are guaranteed the right to band together to collectively bargain.

            If this is true, and the letter wasn't deliberately "leaked" for attention (which, let's be honest, has happened before elsewhere), then I would agree that they should be in a good position.

            1. aerogems Silver badge

              Re: Don't get this confused with free speech.

              Doesn't matter if it was deliberately leaked. They still had a legally guaranteed right to collectively bargain with the company over working conditions and SpaceX broke the law when they fired those employees and used them as examples to intimidate the remaining workforce. Put simply, SpaceX fucked around, and is now at the beginning of finding out.

        2. MachDiamond Silver badge

          Re: Don't get this confused with free speech.

          "Well they did it in public in a manner that could be interpreted as unnecessarily antagonistic to the management of SpaceX, so that might have consequences to how they are protected under the law."

          Doing it in public is likely the only way to get it in front of Elon. He's on social media more than reading his email apparently. Since he fired his personal secretary, there isn't anybody that can put important things in front of him.

    8. Brewster's Angle Grinder Silver badge

      Re: Don't get this confused with free speech.

      "On the other hand, if I say publicly "My boss is an asshole and should resign"... well, expect consequences."

      And, on the other, other hand, congress can still make laws saying "You can't be fired for calling your boss an asshole, when he patently is one." IANAL, but that appears to be what has happened and us the right they are trying to exercise. The courts will determine if that is the case.

    9. MachDiamond Silver badge

      Re: Don't get this confused with free speech.

      "On the other hand, if I say publicly "My boss is an asshole and should resign"... well, expect consequences."

      Elon has on numerous occasions called himself a "free speech absolutist", while pulling this sort of thing and requiring workers at his companies to sign very restrictive NDA's and employment contracts with non-disparagement clauses and a prohibition of speaking about the company(ies) even post employment under threat of lawsuits (which they do file).

      Elon had put himself in a position of only reading and acknowledging posts on Twitter. The open letter was posted as the only way to get through to him.

      I would have just left the company if the boss was making me look like a complete shit as an employee due to their antics. There's a certain level of crazy that can never be considered "eccentric" no matter how much money a person might be worth (on paper).

    10. Ian Johnston Silver badge

      Re: Don't get this confused with free speech.

      The point is that Musk repeatedly bangs on about "free speech" in a non-government context, so it's amusing to see him on the receiving end.

    11. Groo The Wanderer Silver badge

      Re: Don't get this confused with free speech.

      It is perfectly reasonable for employees to complain that their boss is treating them like dirt and to demand improvements in company policies and procedures to bring it in line with labour law standards.

      What good are labour laws if you aren't allowed to complain about them being broken and to lay blame as to who and why they are being broken?

  2. CountCadaver Silver badge

    Proof as ever that any company associated with Elmo rapidly becomes a personality cult and given the comments and down votes that accompany any criticism of elmo, it shows that there are a large number who willingly drink the flavor aid

    1. aerogems Silver badge

      While I agree, don't disparage the Sesame Street character like that. One of them helps teach children valuable life lessons, and the other is Xitler.

  3. The Oncoming Scorn Silver badge
    WTF?

    CONDOM

    For some reason a Cult Outreaching (for) New Devotees Of Musk appeared in my book of faeces feed over the Christmas period.

  4. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Insert Elon Musk snark

    What company allows its employees to criticize its CEO in public.

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: Insert Elon Musk snark

      What company bangs on continuously about free speech for everyone, and uses it as justification for bringing back the lowest dregs of society to xitter in a desperate move to make more money?

  5. mostly average
    Facepalm

    Important detail missing...

    Was the open letter sent from company email? (Or other company owned channel) Was it sent to the entire company? If so, they deserve to be fired. At a minimum for their stupidity alone. Company email (or other services) is private property and they can remove you from their metaphorical (or literal) lawn if they want. At every org I've ever worked for, use of mass email, or reply all, is verboten except for explicitly authorized official use. I think it'd be far more newsworthy if they didn't get fired for pulling a stunt like this.

    1. aerogems Silver badge

      Re: Important detail missing...

      That's a completely irrelevant detail. The employees were attempting to collectively bargain with the company to improve working conditions. A right they are guaranteed under the National Labor Relations Act. SpaceX was required to negotiate with them in good faith, and instead used it as an opportunity to intimidate the rest of the workforce into accepting whatever pittance Xitler and Friends deign to give them. It doesn't matter if they used company email, company letterhead, or anything else. All that matters is they were exercising their rights to collectively bargain with the company, and the company refused to even sit down with them.

      FWIW, and IIRC, the letter was sent company-wide, and then someone leaked it to the press. The latter is probably what really irked Xitler. If it hadn't been leaked to the press, he probably never would have even known it existed.

      1. t245t Silver badge
        Facepalm

        Re: Important detail missing...

        @aerogems: “.. The employees were attempting to collectively bargain with the company to improve working conditions ..

        From the letter, some [Diversity Waffle] followed by: “SpaceX must swiftly and explicitly separate itself from Elon’s personal brand.

        Sure looks like a personal attack!

        1. aerogems Silver badge
          FAIL

          Re: Important detail missing...

          No. A personal attack would be, "t245t is an ass hat." At most it would be an ad hominem, but since they provided specific examples it doesn't qualify as that either.

          1. t245t Silver badge

            Re: Important detail missing...

            @aerogems: “.. since they provided specific examples ..

            Did you say “they”, I don't think there are more than one of me, just ask my invisible friend /s

            1. Michael Wojcik Silver badge

              Re: Important detail missing...

              Wrong antecedent. Try harder.

              1. t245t Silver badge
                Facepalm

                Re: Important detail missing...

                > Wrong antecedent. Try harder.

                Pretend everything's fine, the same as always”, Mr. Whiskers

  6. aerogems Silver badge
    FAIL

    It seems Xitler's trolls are really out in force on this topic. It's pretty obvious most of the commenters so far didn't RTFA which outlines a lot more of the specifics than other writeups on this story.

    What the SpaceX employees did, was effectively band together to try to negotiate better terms and conditions of employment (i.e. collectively bargain). This is absolutely guaranteed in the US under the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA), and the company is required to respond in good faith. Under no circumstances could you consider summarily firing, and then disparaging, the people initiating negotiations to be good faith. SpaceX's intent was clear: punish the impudent employees and use them as an example to intimidate the rest. The kinds of abuses workers rose up against during the Gilded Age in the US, which is why the NLRA exists in the first place.

    Now, before someone else demonstrates that they don't understand what free speech means, let me just say that negotiating in good faith doesn't mean SpaceX would have to give employees everything, or anything really, that they were asking for. What they are required to do is at least sit down with them and have a serious discussion about the concerns raised. Which, SpaceX not only didn't do, it went out of its way to try to send a message of intimidation to other employees about what they can expect if they get any ideas in their head about trying to improve workplace conditions.

  7. cornetman Silver badge

    Not surprised really. Like others have said above, if I publicly called my boss an arsehole, then I would expect to be shown the door.

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Well, they didn't say that, but that aside, does your boss continuously bang on about how everyone should be free to say what they want, without fear of repercussions?

  8. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    It’s just a jump from the left

    To a step to the right

    Put your hands on your dicks

    And bring your tiki torches in tight…

    Elmo gives assholes a bad name.

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: It’s just a jump from the left

      If you are curious about the downvotes, the only shocking part of your post is how rubbish it is!

  9. HammerOn1024

    Something About...

    "At Will" employment...

    Mess, with the boss you say? No problem, the door's over there. Don't let it hit on the backside on the way out.

    Cry babies.

    1. gnasher729 Silver badge

      Re: Something About...

      The boss pretends to be a supporter of unlimited free speech. So if he fires people for their speech then he’s obviously a hypocrite, liar and scumbag.

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