In June, about 20 engineers were invited to a meeting hosted at the headquarters of the rocket manufacturer SpaceX. The subject of the conversation: the company’s founder and chief executive, Elon Musk.
The day before, the company had moved to fire five employees who had written a letter calling on SpaceX to condemn the “harmful Twitter behavior” of Mr. Musk, who had used the social network to make light of a news report that SpaceX had settled a sexual harassment claim against him. Several of the engineers filed into the meeting expecting a sympathetic ear, as some managers and executives had indicated that they did not condone Mr. Musk’s behavior.
But the meeting, which has not been previously reported, quickly became heated, according to two SpaceX employees in attendance.
They said Jon Edwards, the vice president leading the meeting, characterized the letter as an extremist act and declared that the writers had been fired for distracting the company and taking on Mr. Musk. When asked whether the chief executive could sexually harass his workers with impunity, Mr. Edwards did not appear to answer, the two employees said. But they said the meeting had a recurring theme — that Mr. Musk could do whatever he wanted at the company.
“SpaceX is Elon and Elon is SpaceX,” the two recalled hearing Mr. Edwards declare.
The SpaceX letter ultimately led to the firing of nine workers, according to the employees and their lawyers. On Wednesday, unfair-labor-practice charges were filed with the National Labor Relations Board on behalf of eight of those workers, arguing that their firings were illegal.
The SpaceX case raises new questions about the management practices at Mr. Musk’s companies, where there is little tolerance for dissent or labor organizing.
Tesla, the electric car manufacturer that Mr. Musk also runs, has resisted unionization attempts at its factories and is embroiled in legal action brought by workers who said they were not given adequate warning before a layoff in June.
After Mr. 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 subordinates comb through the internal communications and public tweets of Twitter employees, leading to dozens of critics being fired.
Interviews with the eight SpaceX employees who filed the charges highlight Mr. Musk’s firm grip on his workplaces, perhaps even beyond the restraints of federal law. Six of those employees spoke anonymously for fear of reprisal and are not identified by name in the labor board filings.
Legal experts said the law, which gives workers the right to come together for “mutual aid or protection,” most likely protected the writing of the letter, which, in addition to addressing Mr. 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 brazen,” said Tom Moline, an engineer who had been with SpaceX for over eight years when he was fired in June after helping to organize the letter effort. “It feels like one of those times employees have protections.”
SpaceX, Mr. Musk and Mr. 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 Mr. Musk in 2002 and based in Hawthorne, Calif., the company seeks to send people to Mars and make human beings a “multiplanetary” species.
That mission, however, has sometimes been undercut by distractions from their chief executive, several of the former employees who filed the labor charges said in interviews. Mr. Musk has openly railed against politicians and government agencies that have say over 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 published an essay describing multiple instances of being harassed and groped by co-workers. She said there had been little or no follow-up when she reported the incidents. After the essay appeared, other employees began speaking up about what they considered a pattern of predatory behavior by male colleagues.
The company, which does not release employee demographics but which workers say is male-dominated, began an internal audit of its harassment policies, The Verge reported.
Then, in May, Insider reported that SpaceX had paid $250,000 to a company flight attendant in 2018 after she had accused Mr. Musk of exposing himself and propositioning her for sex. (Mr. Musk later said on Twitter that the episode “never happened.”) The story aggravated internal tensions, and several employees said in interviews that they were appalled when Mr. Musk joked about the accusations on Twitter.
The controversy also engulfed Gwynne Shotwell, SpaceX’s president and chief operating officer, whom many employees said they had regarded as an ally.
“I had so much respect for her at the beginning,” said Paige Holland-Thielen, one of the engineers and letter-organizers who were fired. “I would see myself in what she’s done.”
But several employees said their view of her, already tainted by the company’s response to the earlier harassment revelations, dimmed further after Ms. Shotwell sent a companywide email saying she did not believe the accusations against Mr. Musk. “I have worked closely with him for 20 years and never seen nor heard anything resembling these allegations,” she wrote. The email was reported earlier by CNBC.
Within a few days, 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. Mr. 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 the employees did not want executives or other colleagues to see their effort as the start of a union campaign.
“Any time someone mentioned something or shared something from an actual labor union, I was like, ‘Hey, let’s save that for another conversation,’” said Ms. Holland-Thielen, who had taken the training course as an engineering lead, hoping to eventually become a manager.
The letter-writing proceeded along two tracks. One occurred on the workers’ personal software and was visible only to a few dozen employees. The other happened on a collaboration platform visible to anyone at SpaceX, where workers brainstormed “action items.”
One proposal said SpaceX should disclose any other harassment claims against Mr. Musk; another called for a public statement by the company making it clear that Ms. Shotwell’s email about the allegations did not represent the views of every employee.
Ms. Shotwell appeared sympathetic 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 work platform, according to a screenshot viewed by The New York Times.
The group circulated the letter on June 15 — first to Ms. Shotwell and several other executives, and then on a number of the company’s messaging channels.
“Elon’s behavior in the public sphere is a frequent source of distraction and embarrassment for us,” the document read.
The initial response seemed favorable. Internal data showed that over 1,000 people viewed the letter within a few hours, the employees said. More than 400 signed it, many of them anonymously.
Managers also appeared supportive. Mr. Edwards, the vice president, said in a meeting after the letter came out that two of its three proposals were “great ideas,” according to minutes of the meeting shared internally and seen by The Times. He said a third idea — that SpaceX separate itself from Mr. Musk’s “personal brand” — was “more tricky.”
But at the highest levels of the company the response soon became antagonistic, employees said. Within hours, Ms. Shotwell sent Mr. Moline and Ms. Holland-Thielen an email passing along comments from an unnamed co-worker who expressed disagreement with the letter and called it distracting. The Information previously reported on the email.
“Please stop flooding employee communication channels immediately,” Ms. Shotwell wrote in her email, on which she copied senior company officials. She added: “I will consider your ignoring my email to be insubordination. Instead, please focus on your job.”
The following morning, news outlets reported on the open letter. By that afternoon, Mr. Moline, Ms. Holland-Thielen and three other employees were separately contacted by human resources and told that they were being fired. An official cited their role in creating and distributing the letter, four of the employees said.
Ms. Shotwell joined those conversations remotely and emphasized that the workers had wasted vast amounts of company time.
The employees were stunned. “We were really trying to make this as palatable as possible to reasonable minds at SpaceX,” Ms. Holland-Thielen said. One of the employees’ lawyers, Anne Shaver, said the company had “viciously retaliated” against them.
Ms. Shotwell did not respond to a request for comment for this article.
Wilma Liebman, who was a chairwoman of the National Labor Relations Board under President Barack Obama, said a letter seeking clarification of a company’s sexual harassment policies was generally protected by federal labor law. She said the company could argue that the letter’s writers sought to criticize Mr. Musk, activity that isn’t necessarily protected, rather than to improve their workplace. But she said the labor board would probably disagree because the posts from Mr. Musk that employees criticized could be seen as creating a hostile work environment.
Word of the firings spread quickly, workers said, and executives and managers soon took a much harder line. The next week, one employee was told by his manager, who had eagerly shared the open letter with co-workers, to choose between his workplace concerns and getting to Mars, according to the employee.
Workers said that the company fired this employee and two others in July and August after investigating their role in the letter and that it also dismissed 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 firings made them suspect that Ms. Shotwell had bowed to pressure.
“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,” Mr. Moline said. “Finally realizing that she wasn’t that savior — that broke down the trust for me.”