February 20, 2020; The Hill

It all started because of a comic about punching Nazis. All right, it didn’t all start that way, but in fact, Kickstarter’s newly formed union, one of the first white-collar unions in the tech industry, did start because of a series of management decisions that staff disagreed with, Including an initial decision to disallow a funding campaign for a comic book that featured images of people punching Nazis. The history of the unionization drive is not just a funny aside; it’s a telling indicator about what drives staff working in tech. It’s also an indication that a lot of other tech companies may struggle to live up to stated progressive ideals.

While unions typically form to build collective employee power on issues of pay or working conditions, organizing at Kickstarter is instead the culmination of tech industry activism about how companies operate, both internally and in the world. In a sense, the tech workers’ focus on using unions to promote a moral economy is a callback to the social movement unionism of the 1930s and 1940s. Back then, workers often sought to co-manage companies. However, in 1950 in a deal widely known as the Treaty of Detroit, the United Auto Workers under Walter Reuther dialed back its “broader vision of workplace democracy” in exchange for wage and working condition gains.

Today, as then, whether to pursue a moral economy through a union or not remains a matter of debate. The vote in favor of forming a union was narrow, 46–37, and as the New York Times reports, one of the biggest divides was about whether a union was necessary, given that employees at Kickstarter already earn six-digit salaries and receive above-average benefit packages.

But for staff who voted for the union, that wasn’t the point. As one organizer, Clarissa Redwine, stated, “What Kickstarter employees are organizing a union for is the agency to challenge management when management is failing the community. 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.”

According to Kate Conger and Noam Scheiber of the New York Times, Kickstarter’s employees will be affiliated with the Office and Professional Employees International Union. Anticipated contract items include issues of equal pay and inclusive hiring practices. The bargaining committee will include both workers who voted against the union as well as those who voted in favor.

While how the contract negotiations go remains to be seen, the union victory does represent a significant shift in thinking about how employees exercise collective influence at companies. Employees at large tech companies have engaged in increasing activism in the past few years, protesting government contracts and staging walkouts against corporate contributions to climate change and poor handling of sexual harassment. Kickstarter’s decision to form a union points to another model for tech worker activism. As Veena Dubal, associate professor of employment law at the University of California at Hastings puts it, Kickstarter’s union “signals to workers across the tech industry that it is both desirable and possible to build collective structures to influence wages, working conditions and even business decisions.”

Kickstarter’s union is a direct challenge to self-styled progressive companies, not only in terms of how they impact the world, but internally. Kickstarter describes itself as progressive, even becoming a public benefit corporation in 2015. But, like many mission-driven organizations before it, when faced with a union campaign, Kickstarter’s management failed to live up to its stated ideals. In 2018, Kickstarter fired the primary drivers of the unionization effort, both of whom filed retaliation claims with the National Labor Relations Board that have yet to be resolved. Staff reported ongoing tensions over management’s opposition to unionization after the firings.

Tech company staff have just begun testing the limits of their power. And when the companies they aim to push onto the path of better corporate citizenship command so much money and outsize influence, it’s vital that staff have all tools at their disposal to help the tech industry stay true to its roots of not being evil.—Ellen Davis