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Kickstarter workers vote to form first union in tech industry

The historic vote comes amid growing discontent among employees at technology companies such as Google, Amazon and Microsoft, who have started to organize.
Kickstarter United went public with its organizing drive in March 2019.
Kickstarter United went public with its organizing drive in March 2019.Yana Paskova / The Washington Post via Getty Images

Employees at crowdfunding platform Kickstarter voted Tuesday to form a union, the first of its kind in the technology industry, after an 18-month battle with the company’s management.

Kickstarter United will now be formally recognized by the management after a vote held by the National Labor Relations Board, in which workers voted 36 to 47 in favor of unionizing. It is the first union comprised of white-collar, full-time employees in the technology industry.

“What Kickstarter employees are organizing a union for is the agency to challenge management when management is failing the community,” said Clarissa Redwine, one of two union organizers who say they were fired by the company in September. “Workers want to be able to participate in critical product decisions without retaliation, to change how the company handles sexual harassment, how it addresses gender discrimination, and they want to take on future challenges with a healthy power structure.”

The vote comes after a year and a half of internal organizing during which at least two lead union members, Redwine and Taylor Moore, were fired and at least two other workers who helped organize the union drive left after what they described as a tense and, at times, intimidating environment fostered by the management. One other union organizer was laid off and took severance pay, according to five current and former employees at Kickstarter. The company said it has never fired anyone for union activity.

Kickstarter United will now move to the bargaining table, and a committee of union members will sit across from the company’s leadership and negotiate a contract to address the union’s concerns, which include issues surrounding equitable pay, diversity in hiring and gaining a say in company decisions about how the platform is moderated.

The union is organizing with the Office and Professional Employees International Union Local 153.

“We support and respect this decision, and we are proud of the fair and democratic process that got us here,” said Aziz Hasan, the CEO of Kickstarter.

The historic vote comes amid growing discontent among employees at technology companies such as Google, Amazon and Microsoft, who have started to organize in an effort to get their employers to cease activity that some workers view as unethical.

In the past three years, employees at Google have successfully organized thousands of workers to petition the company to not renew a contract with the Pentagon to build artificial intelligence systems for drones and to scrap plans to build a censored search engine for China. Some employees even resigned in protest. Googlers also organized a 20,000-person walkout in 2018, successfully protesting to change internal policies about how the company handles allegations of sexual assault.

Workers at Microsoft, Amazon, Salesforce and GitHub have organized to demand their employers drop contracts with local and federal government agencies that engage in police surveillance and immigration enforcement and deportation.

Kickstarter workers appear to be the first in the tech industry to successfully hold a companywide vote to form a union, according to Nataliya Nedzhvetskaya, a doctoral student at the University of California, Berkeley, who is the co-creator of Collective Actions in Tech, an online database that documents worker actions in the technology industry.

“In the last year through our repository, we found a tremendous upsurge of activism from white-collar workers in tech specifically,” Nedzhvetskaya said. “Some of these actions were directed toward workplace benefits, such as pay, child care on the job, and more flexible hours, but a lot were also motivated by these kinds of moral positions, as people took on issues like immigration or climate change.”

Employees at technology companies have been slower to unionize in part because the industry has a reputation for offering generous salaries and perks, said Veena Dubal, a law professor at the UC–Hastings College of Law who studies labor organizing with a focus on the tech industry. Technology companies also have a reputation for being progressive, espousing values such as Google’s “don’t be evil” that workers believed they could count on.

“Tech company perks, like gourmet coffee, warm cookies, massage chairs or whatever, these things make people feel appreciated in the workplace,” Dubal said. “ But when workers see that their concerns are not taken seriously, all the perks can feel like tools to keep people subdued.”

The seeds for the Kickstarter union were sown in August 2018 during an internal debate about a comic book called “Always Punch Nazis.” Conservative news website Breitbart accused Kickstarter of violating its terms of service for approving a fundraiser for the comic book. Breitbart argued that the book, described as an “anthology about our country’s battle against racism,” violated Kickstarter’s rule barring projects that encourage violence.

Although the Kickstarter employees who reviewed the comic book project decided it did not violate company guidelines, the management disagreed and decided to pull the fundraiser from the platform. Workers grew concerned that their bosses were giving in to demands from far-right trolls.

Ultimately, the management reversed its decision and let the comic book fundraiser remain. But the company’s approximately 150 staff started discussing the possibility of starting a union.

Kickstarter United went public with its organizing drive in March 2019.

In the months that followed, the management sent multiple emails and held meetings where the leadership explained that a union would be expensive and make it harder for the company to remain innovative. In September, after Kickstarter fired two main union organizers and the tensions between the staff and the management became a national news story, the platform’s community of users began a campaign to support the union drive.

Two months later, tensions were still high. So in December, the management committed to a neutrality agreement, meaning the senior leadership would stop attempting to dissuade the union from organizing if the union agreed not to speak to the press.

Kickstarter spokesman David Gallagher said that the neutrality agreement was “about creating space for the staff to talk through this issue amongst themselves, without the distraction of press, social chatter, or internal negativity.”

Kickstarter’s union organizers faced a challenge in determining which workers would be eligible to join the bargaining unit, since the National Labor Relations Board usually recognizes such groups based on similar skill sets and duties. But at Kickstarter, workers who voted to join the union hold a variety of roles including designers, writers, engineers, software developers, product managers and content moderators.

Kickstarter’s management reached an agreement with the union about who would be included in the bargaining unit as part of the neutrality agreement, which meant that organizers did not have to spend months negotiating with the NLRB over who, according to federal law, would be eligible.

Contract workers in the tech industry have successfully voted to form unions on at least two occasions. In September, a group of 90 Google contractors in Pittsburgh voted to unionize with the United Steelworkers. The group didn’t receive resistance from Google, since the workers weren’t employed by the company but rather a contractor firm, HCL America, which is based in India. In 2014, a group of 38 contract workers who do bug testing at Microsoft successfully unionized with their employer Lionsbridge, too.

Toward the end of the dot-com bubble in 2001, customer service workers at a website called successfully voted to unionize with the Communications Workers of America, which was reported by The New York Times as the first dot-com union, but the company folded the next month after it failed to secure more venture capital funding.

Dubal said Kickstarter’s arrangement isn’t a one-size-fits-all solution.

“A lot of these tech firms are super big, so it can be hard for workers to unionize in terms of numbers, and in some ways Kickstarter is very well situated compared to a place like Google for formal unionization,” she said.

CORRECTION (Feb. 19, 2020, 2:27 p.m. ET): A previous version of this article misstated the terms of departure from Kickstarter of an unnamed union organizer. The organizer was laid off and took severance pay; he was not pressured to resign.