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Kickstarter Employees Win Historic Union Election

The final vote was 46 for the union, 37 against, a historic win for unionization efforts at tech companies.

by Lauren Kaori Gurley
Feb 18 2020, 3:59pm

Kickstarter employees right after winning the vote to unionize. Image: Lauren Kaori Gurley

Kickstarter employees voted to form a union with the Office and Professional Employees International Union, which represents more than 100,000 white collar workers. The final vote was 46 for the union, 37 against, a historic win for unionization efforts at tech companies.

Kickstarter workers are now the first white collar workers at a major tech company to successfully unionize in the United States, sending a message to other tech workers.

“Everyone was crying [when the results were announced],” Clarissa Redwine, a Kickstarter United organizers who was fired in September, told Motherboard. “I thought it would be close, but I also knew we were going to win. I hope other tech workers feel emboldened and know that it’s possible to fight for your workplace and your values. I know my former coworkers will use a seat at the table really well."

"Today we learned that in a 46 to 37 vote, our staff has decided to unionize," Kickstarter's CEO Aziz Hasan said in a statement. "We support and respect this decision, and we are proud of the fair and democratic process that got us here. We’ve worked hard over the last decade to build a different kind of company, one that measures its success by how well it achieves its mission: helping to bring creative projects to life. Our mission has been common ground for everyone here during this process, and it will continue to guide us as we enter this new phase together."

The union at the Brooklyn-based crowd-funding platform arrives during a period of unprecedented labor organizing among engineers and other white collar tech workers at Google, Amazon, Microsoft and other prominent tech companies—around issues like sexual harassment, ICE contracts, and carbon emissions. Between 2017 and 2019, the number of protest actions led by tech workers nearly tripled. In 2019 alone, tech workers led more than 100 actions, according to the online database “Collective Actions in Tech.”

“I feel like the most important issues [for us] are around creating clearer policies and support for reporting workplace issues and creating clearer mechanisms for hiring and firing employees,” said RV Dougherty, a former trust and safety analyst and core organizer for Kickstarter United who quit in early February. "Right now so much depends on what team you’re on and if you have a good relationship with your manager... We also have a lot of pay disparity and folks who are doing incredible jobs but have been kept from getting promoted because they spoke their mind, which is not how Kickstarter should work.”

In the days leading up to Kickstarter vote count, Motherboard revealed that Kickstarter hired Duane Morris, a Philadelphia law firm that specializes in labor management relations and “maintaining a union-free workplace.” Kickstarter confirmed to Motherboard that it first retained the services of Duane Morris in 2018 before it knew about union organizing at the company, but would not go into detail about whether the firm had advised the company on how to defeat the union and denied any union-busting activity.

Dating back to its 2009 founding, Kickstarter has tried to distinguish itself as a progressive exception to Silicon Valley tech companies. In 2015, the company’s leadership announced it had become a “public benefit corporation.” “Benefit Corporations are for-profit companies that are obligated to consider the impact of their decisions on society, not only shareholders,” the senior leadership wrote at the time. The company has been hailed as one of the most ethical places to work in tech.

Indeed, rather than dedicate its resources to maximizing profit, Kickstarter has fought for progressive causes, like net neutrality, and against the anti-trans bathroom law in North Carolina.

But in 2018, a heated disagreement broke out between employees and management about whether to leave a project called “Always Punch Nazis” on the platform, according to reporting in Slate. When Breitbart said the project violated Kickstarter’s terms of service by inciting violence, management initially planned to remove the project, but then reversed its decision after protest from employees.

Following the controversy, employees announced their intentions to unionize with OPEIU Local 153 in March 2019. And the company made it clear that it did not believe a union was right for Kickstarter.

In a letter to creators, Kickstarter’s CEO Aziz Hasan wrote in September that “The union framework is inherently adversarial.”

“That dynamic doesn’t reflect who we are as a company, how we interact, how we make decisions, or where we need to go," the company’s CEO Aziz Hasan wrote to creators in September. "We believe that in many ways it would set us back.”

In September, Kickstarter fired two employees on its union organizing committee within 8 days, informing a third that his role was no longer needed at the company. Following outcry from prominent creators, the company insisted that the two firings were related to job performance, not union activity.

The two fired workers filed federal unfair labor practice charges with the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB), claiming the company retaliated against them for union organizing in violation of the National Labor Relations Act. (Those charges have yet to be resolved.) Days later, the company denied a request from the union, Kickstarter United, for voluntary recognition.

The decision to unionize at Kickstarter follows a series of victories for union campaigns led by blue collar tech workers. Last year, 80 Google contractors in Pittsburgh, 2,300 cafeteria workers at Google in Silicon Valley, and roughly 40 Spin e-scooter workers in San Francisco voted to form the first unions in the tech industry. In early February, 15 employees at the delivery app Instacart in Chicago successfully unionized, following a fierce anti-union campaign run by management.

By some accounts, the current wave of white collar tech organizing began in early 2018 when the San Francisco tech company Lanetix fired its entire 14-software engineer staff after they filed to unionize with Communications Workers of America (CWA). Later, the company was forced to cough up $775,000 to settle unfair labor practice charges.

Update: This story has been updated with comment from Kickstarter.

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