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Why SpaceX is facing off with the National Labor Relations Board


SpaceX is under fire for a workplace culture of sexism and harassment, according to a new report in Businessweek. Elon Musk's space exploration company, which plays a key role in modern space flight and satellite operations, has been hit with a complaint from the National Labor Relations Board as well as a civil rights lawsuit in California. In response, SpaceX filed a countersuit against the NLRB, and that threatens the board's very existence. To discuss and explain why, we called one of the co-authors of the Bloomberg Businessweek investigation, Josh Eidelson. Welcome to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED.

JOSH EIDELSON: Thanks for having me.

DETROW: I want to start with the scene that you described at the very beginning of your piece when you're trying to just explain the culture at SpaceX. It starts with the description of a parody HR video that was played at a party.

EIDELSON: That's right. Years ago, SpaceX executives participated in a video, a spoof employee orientation video in which one employee is shown coaching another one on the correct way to spank a co-worker.

DETROW: And this video - before we get into the lawsuits in the counter lawsuits, fair to say, based on your reporting, this video tracked with a lot of the broader culture that you were able to investigate at the company?

EIDELSON: People who've worked at SpaceX say they found this video reflective of a larger reality at SpaceX, that the company felt, in many ways, like a frat house.

DETROW: And people raised concerns about this culture, and they were fired, right?

EIDELSON: Employees circulated this open letter which asked whether the culture at SpaceX was the type of culture that really employees should want to be bringing to Mars. And today after the letter was circulated, people involved in it started to be fired. The day after the National Labor Relations Board issued a complaint against SpaceX saying that the company had illegally retaliated by firing eight employees involved in this open letter, SpaceX responded by suing the NLRB in federal court, arguing that the agency's structure is unconstitutional.

DETROW: I want to read something that you wrote in the story and ask about it. You wrote that if, years from now, the SpaceX workers' NLRB trial ends up happening, it could still go their way, force Musk to reinstate the firees and reinforce U.S. employees' rights to protest their working condition. Or if things go a different way, the fallout could set those rights back almost a hundred years. How could this have such broad implications? What are the stakes here?

EIDELSON: The stakes here affect workplaces throughout the private sector in the United States. The Supreme Court has moved to the right in recent years. We've seen a series of cases in which conservative justices have shown sympathy for arguments like some of the ones being made by SpaceX. If judges decide that the NLRB's structure is unconstitutional, there's a spectrum of moves they could make ranging from letting the next president fire and replace all of the agency's appointees to letting the next president fire and replace the agency's appointees and also rewinding hundreds of pending cases back to before they were ever considered by a judge and letting someone chosen by the next president instead reconsider the case to deciding that the structure of the agency is in such conflict with the Constitution that it cannot function unless Congress steps in and comes up with something new.

DETROW: I did want to ask, has SpaceX responded to your reporting? What are they saying about all of this?

EIDELSON: SpaceX did not comment for our story. The company has denied wrongdoing in the labor board case. It has said that the employees that were fired violated policies and has, among other things, said that they are now trying to harass Elon Musk by trying to subpoena him in the case.

DETROW: That was Josh Eidelson, labor reporter at Bloomberg and Businessweek. He reported on the story along with Loren Grush. Josh, thanks so much.

EIDELSON: Thank you very much.

DETROW: And I'll just add that NPR also reached out to SpaceX for comment, but we have not heard anything back. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Erika Ryan
Erika Ryan is a producer for All Things Considered. She joined NPR after spending 4 years at CNN, where she worked for various shows and in Atlanta and Washington, D.C. Ryan began her career in journalism as a print reporter covering arts and culture. She's a graduate of the University of South Carolina, and currently lives in Washington, D.C., with her dog, Millie.
Scott Detrow is a White House correspondent for NPR and co-hosts the NPR Politics Podcast.