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SpaceX's Sexual Harassment Case Could End Worker Protections For All Of Us

Tfw the sexual harassment victims at your company bring up the instructional video you made about how to sexually harass employees - Photo: SONNY TUMBELAKA/AFP (Getty Images)
Tfw the sexual harassment victims at your company bring up the instructional video you made about how to sexually harass employees - Photo: SONNY TUMBELAKA/AFP (Getty Images)

Elon Musk, CEO of SpaceX, has a long history of being weird about reproduction. Perhaps it’s related to his long history of allegedly harassing and exposing himself to women, which a new report from Bloomberg says has been codified in the culture of SpaceX — a culture that now has the company facing lawsuits from eight ex-workers.

Bloomberg spoke with the fired employees, who claim there’s a massive gap between how SpaceX says workers should act and how they actually do — and how the company encourages immature behavior from those it employs. From Bloomberg:

At SpaceX, sexual harassment became a joke a long time ago. Some years back, employees at the company holiday party were treated to a 10-minute parody video, one of those eye-rolling exercises where your bosses awkwardly try to land a few punch lines. Believe it or not, this particular video has its moments. Astronauts whose lives are riding on a SpaceX rocket might not be thrilled with the gags about the company’s engineers being young or stupid—at one point, little kids arrive to lecture the staff, who are depicted trying to solve every engineering problem by hitting things with hammers—but some bits land on the right side of dad joke.

The video’s sourest note plays a few minutes in, when a narrator chides a staffer who’s just grabbed her colleague Brian Bjelde’s butt. “We have a very strict sexual-harassment policy,” the voiceover intones, “and you’ve got to get it right.” Cut to the same woman practicing her harassment technique on Bjelde, who’s now SpaceX’s vice president for human resources. While he faces an office wall, hands over his head, she spanks him several more times, and another woman helps her refine her form, like a golfer. The eventual punch line is a freeze-frame of her hand on Bjelde’s bum accompanied by a chime and a green check mark, indicating that her harassment now meets with company approval.

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I’ve worked at some HR-risk companies in my time, but a video like that — containing people in positions of power at the company, no less — is a new level of encouraging bad behavior. SpaceX’s reaction, however, is the nuclear option: Trying to gut the entire enforcing body, the National Labor Relations Board. SpaceX is suing to have the entire organization ruled unconstitutional, in a complicated constitutional case:

13. To prevent SpaceX from undergoing protracted administrative proceedings before an unconstitutionally structured agency—after which SpaceX is unlikely to have a chance to secure meaningful retrospective relief—the Court should stay or enjoin the current agency proceedings, declare that the NLRB’s structure violates the separation of powers under Article II of the Constitution, and permanently enjoin the NLRB and its General Counsel from pursuing unfair labor practice charges against SpaceX before agency officials that are unconstitutionally insulated from presidential oversight.

Space Exploration Technologies Corp v. National Labor Relations Board is a wildly in-depth case, citing articles of the Constitution in seemingly every sentence, but it’s one that’s geared towards the current Supreme Court. The case focuses plenty of its attention on the President’s inability to easily fire NLRB workers as a constitutional issue, which is targeted right at the Court’s declaration that “the President’s ‘management of the Executive Branch’ requires him to have ‘unrestricted power to remove the most important of his subordinates’—such as the Attorney General—‘in their most important duties’” from the recent Trump v. United States opinion. SpaceX’s retaliatory strike against its workers may be nuclear, but it’s also very possible the Court will like how it’s written.

SpaceX’s culture appears fratty, debaucherous, and altogether unprofessional — not to mention aggressive towards people outside of positions of power. Yet, the lengths the company will go to in order to protect that culture reach the highest court in the land. And, if we’re all unlucky, Musk’s defenses of sexual harassment will end worker protections for all of us.

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