Two transgender Netflix employees who were disciplined after speaking out about comedian Dave Chappelle’s most recent special have filed complaints with the National Labor Relations Board.
The complaints came from Terra Field, an engineer who was suspended and eventually reinstated, and B. Pagels-Minor, a product manager who was fired. Netflix said its actions against the employees didn’t arise from their criticism of Chappelle’s transphobic and homophobic humor. Instead, the company said, Field was suspended for trying to attend a meeting to which she hadn’t been invited, and Pagels-Minor was terminated for leaking internal data to the press. The workers dispute this.
They filed their complaints Wednesday with the NLRB, an independent agency of the federal government tasked with investigating unfair labor practices, which is what they say Netflix engaged in. The news was first reported Friday by The Verge.
Chappelle’s special The Closer premiered in early October on Netflix. In it, Chappelle announces himself to be “Team TERF” — an acronym for “trans-exclusionary radical feminist” — makes fun of trans women’s genitals, boasts about beating up a lesbian, and sides with DaBaby disparaging people living with HIV.
The special went beyond anything Chappelle had done before, Pagels-Minor recently told The Advocate. “I was like, holy crap, this is some of the craziest stuff I've ever seen, and I can't believe this is on Netflix right now,” they said.
Numerous Netflix employees called for the special to be taken off the platform, but company executives refused. Co-CEO Ted Sarandos said Chapelle’s jokes didn’t rise to the level of hate speech, but he later said the company could have handled the matter better. LGBTQ+ workers and their supporters staged a walkout October 20 to protest Netflix’s support of Chappelle.
In the NLRB filing, Field and Pagels-Minor say Netflix retaliated against them “to quell employees from speaking up about working conditions including, but not limited to, seeking to create a safe and affirming work environment for Netflix employees, speaking up about Netflix’s products and the impact of its product choices on the LGBTQ+ community, and providing support for employees whom Netflix has treated in an unlawful and disparate manner.”
Laurie Burgess, an attorney representing Field and Pagels-Minor, told The Verge, “This charge is not just about B. and Terra, and it’s not about Dave. It’s about trying to change the culture and having an impact for others. The charge is all about collective action. It’s about supporting your coworkers and speaking up for things you care about.”
Netflix responded in a statement sent to The Verge and The Hollywood Reporter, saying, “We recognize the hurt and pain caused to our trans colleagues over the last few weeks. But we want to make clear that Netflix has not taken any action against employees for either speaking up or walking out.”
The National Labor Relations Act, which is enforced by the NLRB, recognizes workers’ right to engage in “concerted activities for the purpose of collective bargaining or other mutual aid or protection.” The NLRB has at times ruled against employers that barred workers from commenting on company matters via social or traditional media.
The agency investigates all complaints it receives, and it can arrange a settlement between employees and employers or, if no settlement can be reached, hold a hearing before an administrative law judge, who then issues a decision in the case. The decisions can be appealed in court.
For Field and Pagels-Minor, “the best-case scenario outside of settling is getting reinstated with backpay and forcing Netflix to post a notice that workers are allowed to engage in protected activity,” The Verge notes.
Pagels-Minor is in the late stages of pregnancy and stands to lose their health insurance soon. “As a high-risk pregnancy, I have to be careful,” they told The Verge. “We don’t even know what our health insurance situation is, and we are scheduled to be in a hospital having a baby in less than 30 days.”
Field said she has received a credible death threat and has been doxxed — seen her personal information revealed — on social media. She has applied for medical leave. “This is what happens with trans people — we’re tolerated as long as we’re quiet, but if we speak up we get harassed,” she told The Verge. “It has been a really stressful few weeks, but I intend to keep fighting for our community.”