How a Scrappy Group of Tech Workers Formed One of the Only Unions in the Industry

Kickstarter employees in February 2020, on the day they voted to form a union. (Courtesy of Kickstarter Workers United)

It’s not every day a worker in the tech sector will speak on the record, let alone two dozen of them.

Companies like Google, Facebook and Apple make workers sign nondisclosure agreements, and typically demand employees run all media requests through their human resources departments. On top of that, workers who do make public remarks have no union to protect them from being fired if the company is unhappy with what they say.

I once had an eyewitness at a fire in San Francisco decline to give a comment because he worked at Apple. As the apartment building burned in front of us, he told me he’d be uncomfortable commenting unless his managers signed off on the statement.

But the story is different at Kickstarter, where over 24 current and former employees have given lengthy interviews about their experiences working for the crowdfunding platform.

The interviews are featured in “Kickstarter Union: Oral History,” a recently released podcast by former employee Clarissa Redwine that documents how workers at the company succeeded earlier this year in forming the first white-collar union at a tech startup.

Redwine says the effort led to her and others being forced out of the company. But now that the union is there, she says, workers have more power and protection to speak out in public.

Organizing Challenges

The story of what happened at Kickstarter shows how difficult it is to organize workers at a company that primarily relies on programming and the internet to do business, and the unique challenges involved.

Redwine says she hopes her oral history project encourages other tech workers to unionize and provides a roadmap for them to avoid the pitfalls that stymied her team. The interviews and recordings she has gathered provide a unique inside look at a modern tech company from the perspective of those who are usually unable or unwilling to tell their stories publicly.

Clarissa’s Path

In 2015, Redwine got her dream job at Kickstarter, managing fundraising projects in the tech and design category. “I was ecstatic,” she said. “When I got the email that I would be joining Kickstarter, I flipped out. I was so excited.”

Clarissa Redwine making ramen for her co-workers in the Kickstarter kitchen (when she still worked there). (Courtesy of Clarissa Redwine)

Now, five years later, Redwine is not even working in tech anymore — she’s a fellow at New York University, where she’s producing the podcast project.

When Redwine got into the tech industry, she never expected things would play out like this.

“I didn’t necessarily have a strong understanding that the way that tech is traditionally infused with capital is harmful,” she said.

At Kickstarter, Redwine felt empowered, she recalls, like she was doing important work. And she was content with the job for her first three years there — up until the "Always Punch Nazis" incident.

Power Struggle

"Always Punch Nazis" is a comic book. In 2018, its writers were trying to raise money on Kickstarter, and they posted a video with dramatic music and images of cartoon characters punching Nazis.

For the last year or so, there had been growing unrest at the company. The former CEO, Perry Chen, had returned after a four-year hiatus, and not all employees were happy about it. In interviews with Buzzfeed, some employees accused Chen of being domineering and making unilateral decisions, and about 50 of them either left or were fired shortly after his return.

But it was the "Always Punch Nazis" situation that brought tensions at the company to a boiling point and that would eventually catalyze the union organizing effort.

When the fundraising page for the comic appeared on Kickstarter in August 2018, bloggers for the right-wing website Breitbart began complaining that the comic promoted violence and violated the company's guidelines. In response, Kickstarter management said they’d take the project down. But many employees advocated for it to remain up.

Redwine has a recording of an emergency meeting at the height of the controversy. One employee stood up and said, “I just want to put on the record that not all of us are happy about this. This is super not chill and there is no other way to describe the feeling of being told in a room why we should be okay with this decision.”

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Employees eventually pressured the company to keep the project on the site. But, according to Redwine, managers started retaliating against some of the employees involved, reprimanding them for publicly speaking out.

The whole episode got Redwine and others thinking about how little power they actually had at the company; when it came to making big decisions, employees wouldn’t actually have much say unless they banded together.

“Having power and having a voice in the workplace are different things,” Redwine said. “A lot of us feel like we have a voice and can speak up, but does that actually change anything? Through this experience, I learned no, no it doesn't. It doesn’t change anything unless you link arms with your fellow co-workers, and use your collective power to challenge management.”

Banding Together

Redwine and others started meeting at a co-worker's apartment — a tiny studio just around the corner from Kickstarter’s offices. They’d cram in and talk about what was bugging them at the company. In addition to the recent incidents, some of them also voiced concern about recent hiring and firing decisions, and the dearth of women and people of color in senior management. The issues varied, but it all boiled down to a general lack of control.

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Although Kickstarter was then a company of less than 100 people, the issues raised by its employees were concerns shared by many workers at larger tech companies. For instance, during the Google Walkout in 2018 a worker took the stage and said, “We demand structural change. We demand transparency, accountability and equity.”

Google employees have since spoken out against the company’s contracts with the U.S. military, its two-tier class system that separates employees and contractor and sexual harassment issues. But unlike Kickstarter, Google workers have never come close to forming a union.

Getting the Ball Rolling

At the meetings in the cramped studio, the group of Kickstarter employees decided they should affiliate with the Office and Professional Employees International Union. Redwine said OPEIU seemed the most committed to helping them unionize and using the effort as a template for organizing workers at other tech firms.

Redwine and her co-workers presumed Kickstarter management would embrace the union or at least not actively fight against it. Many of them believed the company truly did strive to have a less hierarchical management structure, as they had consistently claimed. But OPEIU advisors warned them not to be so trusting, and Redwine says they were right.

As Redwine describes it, management got wind of the organizing effort and started to push back. In meetings, she says, managers spoke about how Kickstarter didn’t need a union, and sent around emails to staff trying to dissuade organizing efforts. Management then outed the unionizing effort, announcing it to the whole company before organizers had contacted everyone individually, she says. And that’s when the group realized management was going to aggressively fight the effort.

“You know, it’s like, ‘Fool me once, fool me twice…’ I think we got to like fool me 10 times,” she said.

Kickstarter denies that it was opposed to the organizing effort. In a statement for this story, a Kickstarter spokesperson said, “We fully support and respect our staff’s decision to unionize earlier this year, and we’re proud of the fair and democratic process that got us to where we are today.”

Clarissa Redwine giving a talk at Kickstarter headquarters. (Courtesy of Clarissa Redwine)

Redwine says to pull off the union, they had to convince the software engineers to join. Much like in other tech firms, engineers — who keep the tech running — have far more power than employees in sales or marketing, and typically receive better pay and perks.

The group worked hard to get engineers on board, Redwine says, and after a concerted outreach effort, managed to convince many of them to join the cause. In the end, employees voted 46-to-37 in favor of unionizing, and in February officially formed Kickstarter United.

Personal Loss, Group Gain

Employees who are still with the company say that because of the union, management has been more receptive to worker grievances, especially now during the pandemic. Employees were able to ensure that staff who got laid off received severance packages and are currently in the process of hammering out a collective bargaining agreement.

But the formation of the union came at a cost to individual workers. Last fall, the company fired or pushed out three organizers, herself included. She says she was fired after a complaint by her manager following a meeting.

Redwine was shocked. She had just had one of the best sales quarters of her career.

“Whenever I think back on it, I think it was a little bit of that classic tech culture individualism that made me feel a little more confident than I should have been,” she said.

In a statement, a spokesperson for Kickstarter said that Redwine was “terminated for legitimate issues that were well documented long before any organizing effort.”

Redwine's colleague and fellow organizer Taylor Moore was fired around the same time she was. Last month, the National Labor Relations Board found sufficient evidence that Kickstarter retaliated against Moore for his organizing work. According to Vice News, the company recently settled with Moore, compensating him for more than $36,000 in backpay.

Lessons Learned

In the end, the union did bring Kickstarter managers to the bargaining table. But the larger goal was always to inspire other tech workers to organize, Redwine says.

She hopes the new podcast will help other tech worker organizers avoid the mistakes that she and her co-workers made, like trusting their company’s management and thinking it would be easy to undo existing hierarchies.

Groups like the Tech Workers Coalition and Game Workers Unite are trying. They just had success in England, where several dozen tech workers joined the Communications Workers Union. And in South Korea, programmers working for companies like Microsoft, Hewlett-Packard and Oracle are unionized.

So far, though, workers at only one other U.S. tech company have successfully followed Kickstarter’s example: the 50 employees at the video game company Glitch.

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