Federal labor officials accused the rocket company SpaceX on Wednesday of illegally firing eight employees for circulating a letter critical of the company’s founder and chief executive, Elon Musk.
According to a complaint issued by a regional office of the National Labor Relations Board, the company fired the employees in 2022 for calling on SpaceX to distance itself from social media comments by Mr. Musk, including one in which he mocked sexual harassment accusations against him.
The letter circulated by the employees also called on SpaceX, which has more than 13,000 employees, to clarify its harassment policies and enforce them consistently.
The labor board complaint said the company’s president and chief operating officer, Gwynne Shotwell, had illegally restricted employees from circulating the letter, and it identified similar infractions by other executives and managers.
The case is scheduled to go before an administrative judge in early March unless SpaceX agrees to a settlement beforehand. A spokeswoman for the labor board said it was seeking make-whole remedies like reinstatement and back pay for the workers.
“At SpaceX the rockets may be reusable, but the people who build them are treated as expendable,” said Paige Holland-Thielen, one of the employees who were fired. “I am hopeful these charges will hold SpaceX and its leadership accountable for their long history of mistreating workers and stifling discourse.”
SpaceX did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Mr. Musk has sometimes taken a hard line toward his companies’ employees, as when he laid off roughly half the work force at Twitter, now known as X, shortly after buying the company in 2022. He later fired roughly two dozen internal critics at Twitter, which has lost about 80 percent of the 7,500 employees who worked there when the billionaire took over.
Tesla, where Mr. Musk is chief executive, has spent years litigating a case in which the labor board accused it of firing an employee for engaging in union activity. The board ruled in 2021 that the firing was illegal and ordered Tesla to reinstate the worker with back pay, a decision that a federal court affirmed. The company is appealing the case further.
The Justice Department sued SpaceX in August, accusing it of discriminating against asylum-seekers and refugees in its hiring, but a judge has issued an injunction blocking that case from moving forward.
In December 2021, a former SpaceX employee published an essay detailing instances of harassment and groping by colleagues that she said went largely unaddressed after she reported them.
The essay provoked outrage within the company, which said it would begin an audit of its harassment policies.
The next spring, Business Insider reported that SpaceX had paid $250,000 in 2018 to settle a claim in which an employee accused Mr. Musk of exposing himself and sexually propositioning her. Mr. Musk denied the accusation and joked about it on Twitter.
Not long after, a group of employees began brainstorming ideas for making the company less tolerant of harassment and drafting the letter. Ms. Shotwell was aware of the effort and appeared supportive of it, according to comments she left on an internal communications platform seen by The New York Times.
In mid-June 2022, several employees circulated their letter to colleagues. The letter called Mr. Musk’s public comments “a frequent source of distraction and embarrassment for us” and urged the company to “uphold clear repercussions for all unacceptable behavior, whether from the C.E.O. or an employee starting their first day.”
While some managers responded sympathetically, within a few hours Ms. Shotwell reprimanded two employees involved in writing and distributing the letter, Tom Moline and Ms. Holland-Thielen. “Please stop flooding employee communication channels immediately,” Ms. Shotwell said in an email, adding, “I will consider your ignoring my email to be insubordination.”
The next day, the company fired Mr. Moline, Ms. Holland-Thielen and three other employees involved in organizing the letter. It fired four others connected to the letter in July and August 2022. (The labor board considered only eight firings because the ninth employee did not file a formal charge.)
The labor board complaint said that the firings had been retaliatory and that Ms. Shotwell and other SpaceX officials had interfered with the employees’ rights to engage in concerted activities that are legally protected.
It also said a company vice president had broken the law by criticizing the letter at a meeting with employees a few days after it was circulated and “inviting employees to quit if they disagreed with the behavior of chief executive officer Elon Musk.” The Times previously reported that a company vice president had told workers that the letter was an extremist act and that Mr. Musk could do whatever he wanted at the company.
The complaint also said a senior human resources official had illegally created the impression of surveillance when she showed workers involved in drafting the letter screen shots of a chat they had conducted on a messaging app.
Ryan Mac contributed reporting.