SpaceX fired employees involved in writing an open letter to corporate leaders criticizing CEO Elon Musk. Thursday's letter called for SpaceX to have stronger anti-harassment policies and Musk to be more controlled on Twitter.

Five employees were fired within minutes of the publication of the letter. Labor lawyers claim that the firings may have been against US labor law.

It is unclear whether fired employees will file a suit against the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB). Lawyers say that if they do, they will have a strong case.

Charlotte Garden, a Seattle University law professor, said that to be covered, an action must be coordinated (certainly, this is the case here) and relate to working conditions.

Retaliation cases are often difficult because it is hard to prove someone was fired for speaking out. SpaceX, however, has made it simple to demonstrate the connection.

Gwynne Shotwell, SpaceX president, made it clear to employees following the firings that employees were fired for their participation in the letter.

SpaceX attempted to deny this connection, but the simple timing of firings -- less than 24 hours after the letter -- is hard to overlook.

Mary Inman, a whistleblower lawyer at Constantine Cannon, says that "this could very much be considered as retaliation" for speaking out. What does this mean for workers? It states, "We don't want you to hear from us."

SpaceX has not responded to our request for comment. The main obstacle to a legal challenge would be to prove that the letter is an employee meeting to discuss working conditions.

However, the letter's emphasis on company goals and the "no assholes" policy fit this model. While there are some exceptions for abusive or vulgar speech directed at customers, none of these cases fits with the SpaceX facts.

Garden stated to The Verge that it struck her as a letter primarily about working conditions. Garden said that he believed the NLRB would also see it this way.

SpaceX may be required to pay back the employees with back pay if the case is successful. The protections wouldn't apply to managers or supervisors who are not subject to the National Labor Relations Act.

SpaceX has had longstanding harassment issues. Five former SpaceX employees filed complaints in December about harassment problems they felt were being mishandled.

In 2020, a former intern sued SpaceX, alleging that the company retaliated against it after she reported harassment. The employee letter also makes the same point: "recent incidents are not isolated incidents; these are emblematic of an even wider culture.''

This is not the first time Musk's company violated US labor laws. The NLRB issued a directive to Tesla to restore a fired employee and pay back the compensation.This followed a heated dispute over the attempts to unionize Tesla's Fremont plant under United Auto Workers.

Musk was also told to remove a tweet suggesting that unionization would result at the end of stock options. However, this tweet is still active over a year later. Communications Workers of America (CWA) already sees the SpaceX firings in a way that fuels their ongoing efforts to organize tech workers.

The CWA released a statement saying that Elon Musk has stated that he is committed to free speech, except when employees exercise their legally protected right to speak out about their working conditions.

We hope that this will serve as a rallying point to SpaceX workers, like at Google and Activision.