It was weeks after a right-wing campaign had succeeded in convincing Disney to fire director James Gunn from its “Guardians of the Galaxy” series over offensive but old jokes made on social media, and employees at Kickstarter felt like it was their company that was now capitulating.
Several of them decided to speak up. And they launched an effort to start a union, as the conversation snowballed to include issues like pay disparities and sexual harassment. But that effort has been marked by tension — the company fired two of the union’s main organizers within a week of each other in September.
Waves of employee activism have swept through the world of tech in the past couple of years, but these actions — protests, petitions, walkouts — have largely stopped short of union campaigns. Kickstarter would be the first name-brand tech shop to unionize , potentially foreshadowing the growth of organized labor in previously inhospitable terrain.
Is Kickstarter a sign of unions’ renewed appeal among a new generation of workers? In 1983, 20.1 percent of American workers were in labor unions. Now, just 10.5 percent are. The campaign’s outcome is likely to be interpreted as a harbinger — even if it’s just an attempt by a handful of workers to shake things up during rocky times at one company.
Kickstarter has been a darling of the New York City tech scene since it was founded in 2009, lauded for creating a sleek platform to crowdfund artistic projects and inventions of all stripes.
But internal struggles have spilled into view in recent years. Employees told The Washington Post that the “Always Punch Nazis” incident, in August last year, marked a new low. (The Post spoke to about a dozen current and former Kickstarter employees for this report.)
Managers had explained the decision to take the project down at a staff meeting, saying the project violated an internal policy against promoting violence. But employees pushed back, including at least one who questioned whether he could still continue his work there.
“There is a set of rules in life and one big rule that says don’t help Nazis,” said Taylor Moore, a former employee and union organizer at the company. “I didn’t want Kickstarter to just be one of these companies that folded for these slugs.”
The swell of emotion surprised some who were there that day, and a manager made the decision to leave the project up, against the legal counsel’s advice.
“It was a great moment — we were like, ‘Hey, we did this,’ ” said Clarissa Redwine, 29, an employee at the company at the time. “We came together and helped influence a decision that was made.”
The project ended up raising $5,000, surpassing its goal.
Talk of forming a union began to percolate even though none of the organizers had that much experience with one, Moore said.
So the group contacted veteran organizers and consulted with a guy who had “salted” — union slang for getting a job somewhere with the intent to organize fellow workers — the Atlantic City casinos. They also began to talk to co-workers about workplace concerns.
“You discover it’s not just the neo-Nazis and unjust termination,” Moore said. “It’s also some women saying there’s a gender pay disparity, someone saying they’ve had their sexual harassment claims ignored, another saying that working remotely is not fairly applied on their team. It really became clear that a union was not only a good idea but necessary.”
Kickstarter spokesman David Gallagher told The Post that the company had studied the salaries of its engineering team and found no pay disparities, but was continuing to study the issue. Sexual harassment allegations are looked at by an independent investigator, Gallagher said.
A tech movement
The halo of optimism that had surrounded the tech world’s public image took a beating after the 2016 election. The bitter campaign was marked by a growing awareness of the harassment, racism and misinformation that was flourishing on platforms built by some of Silicon Valley’s most vaunted companies.
That phenomenon, in combination with the rise of a fired-up left wing in President Trump’s time in office, has created a potent mix for tech companies.
At Google, employees have challenged work with the Defense Department and China and staged massive walkouts over sexual misconduct policies. At Microsoft and Salesforce, workers protested contracts with Immigration and Customs Enforcement and U.S. Customs and Border Protection. At Amazon, shareholder groups contested the development of a facial-identification program being used by law enforcement agencies. (Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos owns The Washington Post.)
The efforts are drawing inspiration from one another, as well as from worker movements such as the West Virginia teacher strike and the Fight for $15. But despite considerable buzz, unions — which have been on the wane for decades — have not broken through in tech’s white-collar workforce, which typically enjoys high pay, comfortable benefits and plentiful perks.
Kickstarter, with a staff of about 160, could change that.
“It’s a very big deal,” said Mar Hicks, a tech historian at the Illinois Institute of Technology. “It kind of shows which way the wind is blowing. Even at a company like Kickstarter where you see they’re not doing anything particularly controversial, like picking up contracts from the Pentagon, employees have shown there is a very good reason to have more power.”
Organizers said the Kickstarter union would increase accountability around decisions about pay, hiring and discipline.
But the push seemed to accentuate divisions in the building — among staffers, and between staffers and management, current and former employees told The Post.
The same day the union effort was made public in mid-March, Perry Chen, the company’s CEO, announced in a blog post that he was stepping down. The next day, three employees sent a memo to the whole staff that outlined their concerns about the union.
Management at the company began to talk to the staff about the effort, according to Redwine. They implemented some staff demands, improving the company’s financial transparency and creating an anonymous tool to report work issues.
They also brought in an outside lawyer — known for representing companies in disputes with unions — to train managers, and held three attendance-optional meetings with staffers in May and June to talk about the union campaign.
By then, the company’s new CEO, Aziz Hasan, had told the staff in an email that leadership did not support the union effort and would not voluntarily recognize it.
Redwine said she interpreted the statements and meetings as “classic union-busting tactics.”
“They would read prepared statements that were very anti-union in the guise of having Q and A,” Redwine said. “They brought in anti-union lawyers, sent around emails saying they did not think a union was right for Kickstarter.”
Two employees, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because they feared harassment, told The Post that organizers’ aggressive tactics had felt like harassment to some workers at the office. They also questioned whether the Office and Professional Employees International Union (OPEIU), the national organization Kickstarter United had chosen to affiliate with, had the staff’s best interests at heart.
Three organizers dismissed
Redwine, who had been a public member of the union’s organizing committee, said that she began to feel as if she was a target of hostility from her managers.
“I’d have a normal conversation in Slack then all of a sudden get a long email about how my conversation was disrespectful and inappropriate,” she said. “I would push back and then be told I couldn’t take feedback. I was in this trap.”
She said she was told during a review in July that she was having problems “being a team player” and building trust with managers.
She said she was fired in early September after her bosses said she had been disrespectful during a conversation with another employee. She had worked there for four years and said that her performance and metrics at the company had always been exemplary.
One week later, around Sept. 12, Moore was also fired, after six years at the company. He was also one of a handful of people who had been regularly listed on Kickstarter United emails as an organizer.
Over 180 @kickstarter creators, who have collectively raised 7+ million dollars, have now signed our statement of solidarity with the Kickstarter Union and condemned the company's firing of organizers. I would like to share some of their comments with you. https://t.co/AiQObPxt3J— Nathan J Robinson (@NathanJRobinson) September 18, 2019
A lawyer for the OPEIU filed a formal complaint with the NLRB on Sept. 16, days after the firings.
The complaint alleges that the company violated two sections of federal labor law by firing Redwine and Moore because of involvement in the union.
Kickstarter said it has not dismissed or retaliated against anyone for union organizing, saying the two employees were let go for “performance reasons,” without giving specifics.
“We have affirmed the staff’s right to organize, and six months after the organizing effort here was announced, the decision remains in their hands,” Gallagher, the company spokesman, said in an email. “Both of these employees were members of the organizing committee, but this had nothing to do with their departures.”
Kickstarter United declined to answer questions about the progress of its organizing effort. Two union members told The Post that the firings have galvanized its push.
If the union does not win recognition from the company voluntarily, it can win the right to bargain collectively in an election overseen by the NLRB. But it will need to show that at least 30 percent of union-eligible employees support the effort first, and win a majority of the election ballots.
Moore, for one, is bullish on its prospects. He sees Kickstarter’s union as part of the larger movement.
“The tech industry as a whole is maturing in a way that means these internal anxieties aren’t going to be resolved unless unions happen,” he said.