Kickstarter kick-starts debate about the future of labor unions in tech

An ongoing struggle between wannabe union members and Kickstarter, their employer, could offer a glimpse into the future of organized labor in the tech industry.


October 17, 2019

Kickstarter, which has repeatedly refused to recognize an employee-organized labor union, is the latest tech company to grapple with the realities of worker-driven movements. 

It all started with a comic book about punching Nazis 

The crowdfunding company has long sought to portray itself as a corporate do-gooder. Company leadership has vowed to never go public — allowing it to focus less on making money for shareholders and more on social issues.

Since 2009, Kickstarter has generated more than $4.5B for 170k creative projects — including a satirical comic book, “Always Punch Nazis,” inspired by a live-TV punch delivered to white nationalist Richard Spencer.

The right-wing site Breitbart caught wind of the fundraiser and complained it violated Kickstarter’s terms of agreement by promoting violence. After much internal debate, Kickstarter management decided to pull the plug on the project. But employee pressure led the company to reverse its decision.

Despite the reversal, several employees felt Kickstarter was cowing to racists.

So employees formed a labor union

Earlier this month, a group of “Kickstarter United” organizers — in affiliation with the OPEIU Local 153, a nationwide union representing professional workers — officially requested recognition from Kickstarter leadership. 

In addition to input in company decisions, the group called for pay equity and diversity in hiring. Kickstarter declined to recognize the union, but said it would have the National Labor Relations Board conduct a secret-ballot election to settle the matter. 

Meanwhile, Kickstarter fired two union organizers. The company insists the firings were performance-related — but others claim the dismissals did not follow protocol. 

This could be the start of something big

If Kickstarter employees succeed in unionizing, they could portend changes for other tech companies. Amazon and Wayfair both had big employee activist moments this year, but so far Kickstarter is the only one with union rumblings. 

Throughout all of this, Kickstarter has insisted it’s not a union buster, and claims instead that it has concerns about the additional costs associated with union negotiations and the possibility of operational constraints imposed by contracts.

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