On February 18 earlier this year, Camilla Zhang wore a dress to work, one that made her feel particularly confident. She needed some confidence: That day was the culmination of more than a year of hard work trying to convince her coworkers at Kickstarter to form a union.
Zhang, who worked at the crowdfunding site for artists and other creators recruiting new projects for its outreach team, joined about two dozen of her fellow organizers to go from the Kickstarter office in Greenpoint, Brooklyn, to the National Labor Relations Board regional office in lower Manhattan. When they arrived, they found a sealed box full of votes. An NLRB representative cut it open and read out the votes one by one, yes or no.
Zhang had brought a notebook to try to tally the votes as they were read, but her pen kept slipping because her hands were so sweaty. Oriana Leckert, another member of Kickstarter’s outreach team, whose bouncy curls match her ebullience and enthusiasm, tried to count along but lost track. So she focused on coworkers’ faces to figure out whether they had prevailed. The room was tense. At some points the vote was tied; at others, the no votes seemed to have it. “What a roller coaster of a 30 minutes,” recalls Dannel Jurado, another employee who was also in the room.
Then the one person who had been able to keep up with the tally abruptly raised his head. “I was like, ‘Oh my god, we have it,’” Leckert recalls.
Kickstarter employees had pulled off something historic: They were the first white-collar technology workforce to unionize in US history. It took hard work—some of it straight out of the traditional labor playbook, some of it adapted to a new style of work. And it’s already creating a ripple of change throughout the industry.
So far, another tech company—Glitch—has followed in their footsteps. (Members of WIRED’s staff, though not part of the technology industry, announced on April 22 that they were forming a union.) Public demonstrations of dissent at major tech companies like Amazon and Google have sparked whispers that the outrage could turn into unionization campaigns there as well. By paving the way and showing what it takes to unionize white-collar tech workers—and eventually, possibly securing a precedent-setting contract—Kickstarter employees hope they’ve started a trend in an area previously untouched by unionization. The move also tackles not just issues of pay and benefits, but how employees can have more power over what they produce.
Kickstarter is known as one of the more progressive tech firms: It took the early and unusual step of reincorporating as a public benefit corporation in 2015—a structure that takes into account not only the financial needs of shareholders, but also those of employees, the broader community, and the environment. Employees describe an open and generally flat culture.
But when Perry Chen, one of the site’s three cofounders, who had left at the end of 2013, came back to the CEO job in 2017, a period of turmoil began. Fifty people left. Employees told BuzzFeed in 2018 that he made a number of decisions single-handedly, such as scrapping new features or project timelines and forcing people out, under the belief that as a founder, he alone had the vision to guide the company’s future. “Perry came back and just destroyed the culture, pushed out a lot of really good people,” says Taylor Moore, a former employee who worked at the company on the outreach team at the time and was part of the first group of employees who decided to organize a union. “It just really, really tore apart a lot of the good work that the company was doing.”
Chen naturally sees his leadership as necessary and beneficial. “When there’s a leadership change, other changes inevitably occur. Some find change and ambiguity extremely difficult, others see it as an opportunity,” Chen said in an email. “When I returned in 2017, it was incumbent upon me to thoroughly assess the state of the organization—why things that were working well were working well, and why things that were not were not—make any decisions necessary while I was serving as CEO, and help set the company up for the next leader.”
One of the changes that most angered employees was the decision to end Drip, announced in late 2018. Drip was a tool that had been developed to let creators of projects on the site start subscriptions, similar to Patreon, allowing them to build sustainable revenue streams. Eliminating the tool “came out of the blue,” Zhang says, with “no consultation” with employees who were affected. “It seemed to be at the whim of one person to just make a blanket decision,” she adds.
In an email, Chen defended this move. “I understand how it feels to have a project canceled. Especially when something you’ve poured yourself into is going away. Decisions like this are hard, and you know that they will be unpopular with the people directly affected. Still, as leaders of a larger organization, you need to not avoid making these hard calls, which are never made without extensive analysis and deliberation,” the cofounder wrote to me. “In the case of Drip, we needed to dedicate more of the company’s limited resources to Kickstarter[’s] core, which is where we reassigned the majority of the Drip team.”
“There was talk of collective action then, but it just didn’t quite hit the threshold of numbers or intensity,” Moore recalls.
Then Always Punch Nazis was launched in August of 2018. The satirical comic “about our country’s battle against racism,” was created after neo-Nazi Richard Spencer got punched in the face on camera. It attracted the notice of right-wing outlet Breitbart, which published an article claiming the project violated Kickstarter’s terms of service, which prohibits “encouraging violence against others.”
The trust and safety team is tasked with monitoring the site’s projects and watching for potential problems or violations of the company’s rules. That team would review the controversial project to determine whether it violated Kickstarter’s terms. Given the open culture, there was usually a lot of communication between teams about big decisions like this, and the entire company was now interested in the fate of this project. So when the team’s manager decided to cancel the project, one of its members posted the decision in a public Slack channel—which, up until then, was a common way to communicate about significant decisions.
The reaction was immediate. “A lot of us are furious and a lot of us don’t hold back, and we say so,” Moore says, who was one of the employees to speak up in the Slack channel. Management called an all-hands meeting to explain the decision to take the project down; nearly all staff attended. Many voiced severe misgivings about the decision. Moore says he said at the meeting “that it was a profound and moral wrong to support the Nazis in their coordinated communications campaign by fulfilling their wishes and canceling the project.”
Others worried it would fuel more harassment of Kickstarter employees to give in to right-wing agitators. Some were concerned that many of the creators on the site who come from groups targeted by neo-Nazis—people of color, LGBTQ people—would feel let down. Outrage cut across roles and teams. “There were a lot of software engineers who were using their privileges … to speak out about this” in the meeting, says Yatrik Solanki, a Kickstarter engineer. “That was some very inspiring solidarity to see.”
Afterward, when Moore ran into an employee who had said he would reconsider working at Kickstarter if the decision stood, Moore yelled, “Union!” It was the first time he’d said it out loud.
Yet at first, it felt as if the concerned employees had won. Management reversed course the next day and kept the project up on the site. “It felt extraordinary,” Moore says. “We stood up for what we believed in, we had each other’s backs, and the result was that the right thing happened.”
Then came management’s backlash against those who had spoken up, several employees say. The person who posted about the decision in Slack was told the company had lost trust in her and offered her severance pay in exchange for a resignation, according to three people. That enraged her coworkers. “I can still feel the acid burn of that anger,” Moore adds.
RV Dougherty, a former employee who worked on the trust and safety team, recounts that management disciplined them and other members of their team for talking about it so publicly. Zhang, Moore, and another employee in trust and safety also said the team was reprimanded. “Folks started getting pulled into one-on-ones with their managers and getting reprimanded for having demanded accountability or having talked about the situation, being told it’s not your place,” Dougherty says. The people on the trust and safety team were told “if you can’t just execute the decisions we make, you should find another job.”
The retaliation wasn’t limited to that team. Other employees, from engineers to the outreach team, also say they were reprimanded for speaking out. Moore says he was told his remarks at the all-hands meeting were “toxic and dangerous,” and that he shouldn’t be publicly questioning management’s choices, otherwise he could be fired.
The company disputes these accounts. “Nobody was fired or threatened with termination in connection with this issue,” David Gallagher, senior communications director at Kickstarter, said in an email.
Employees started talking to each other about other complaints “through whisper networks,” according to Dougherty. Some described experiencing harassment and not being supported when they reported it to management, he says. Others brought up pay disparities and a lack of action to address them. Employees started realizing that their own individual experiences weren’t isolated. “It was “this really kind of beautiful moment,” Dougherty adds.
“Kickstarter aims to create a workplace where all of our staff members are treated fairly and feel supported, respected, and valued, regardless of their gender, sexual orientation, or any other attribute,” says Gallagher, but it hasn’t “always had well-designed structures in place to support those efforts.” He said the company has worked to rectify this, introducing more robust policies and procedures for harassment, discrimination, and retaliation in late 2018.
Moore and others started to believe that the best way to secure more power for Kickstarter employees would be to form a union—a vehicle not just for bargaining over pay and benefits, but for giving employees more clout. Not to mention that employees had gotten a taste of the power of collective action when they pushed back against management’s decision to take down the Always Punch Nazis project. “Folks had been upset before, but had never energized to take such [direct] action,” Dougherty says.
“It was very clear the way to address the root cause of all of our problems was to change the balance of power,” Moore says. “And the way you do that is through a union.”
To form a union, though, they would need to convince a majority of employees to join. Moore drew up a list of people he thought would be supportive, a list he still keeps in his desk. Then he started inviting them to coffee in his personal studio, where he now records a comedy podcast. It’s a large brick-walled space with a big, dark wood conference table and a soundproof recording area. He sat them on a big blue couch and tried to convince them from behind his big wooden desk.
The core group had some things going for it: They represented a range of skills and backgrounds. Moore, a big person with a big presence and rosy cheeks behind a blond mustache and beard, is “a talker” and enjoyed doing one-on-one conversations. Dougherty had previous organizing experience and brought techniques like the “fist of five,” a way of voting that wasn’t just yes or no, but allowed people to show support on a scale of one to five. At least one member had already been in a union: Leckert, who joined later on, worked at Strand bookstore in 2001 and was in the UAW there. “Thank god we had a diverse, smart group of organizers,” Moore says. “If you’re organizing, look for people with varied skill sets, make sure your team is diverse.”
About 10 to 15 people showed up for the first official meeting at Moore’s studio from a range of teams and in a variety of jobs. “Folks were really, really energized about what might be possible, but also trying to figure out what do we even do,” Dougherty says. It wasn’t a given that they would form a union; they also talked about creating a petition, turning Kickstarter into an employee-owned cooperative, or seeking other avenues toward having a greater voice. But a union “felt like the most winnable thing,” he notes.
Those early unionization meetings were one of the first times employees from such a cross-section of the company had the chance to talk about the challenges they faced at work. The first two meetings were nearly consumed by people sharing their stories and getting angry on each others’ behalf.
They quickly came to realize, however, that they were motivated by many shared concerns, not just about the handling of Always Punch Nazis. One exercise in which everyone named their top issues for what a union could address revealed some consistent themes: equitable pay, diversity, fair disciplinary and review processes, and more inclusive decisionmaking.
But they had a lot of hard work ahead of them. In tech workplaces, “there’s such a family culture, and it feels very flat,” says Grace Reckers, an organizer with the Office and Professional Employees International Union, who eventually worked with Kickstarter employees on their campaign. “There’s this fear of conflict.” That can make it difficult to get people ready to stir things up by unionizing.
In addition, while many different kinds of people work in technology, there tends to be “a current of individualism, a current of privilege,” Leckert says. The salaries and benefits are often generous. Workplaces come with perks like ping-pong tables and free beer and snacks. Engineers in particular are in high demand, which gives them some job security.
On the other hand, tech workers tend to be particularly devoted to the companies they work for—since they usually have their pick of places to work—and the work that they do. So what drives them to unionize may not be agitating for better pay but gaining more say over a company’s decisions.
The most important tool for trying to convince their coworkers, everyone told me, was simply talking to people one on one. Although Kickstarter is a place that encourages employees to get to know each other—one of its mottos for its employees is “always be meeting new people”—it’s still a tech workplace where much of the communication is done over Slack or email; face-to-face conversations didn’t necessarily come easily. “My first couple of conversations, it was so difficult for me,” Zhang says. “I was kind of rehearsing in my head … it’s almost like going on a first date.”
“At first we wouldn’t drop the U word,” Dougherty says. Instead, the conversations focused on how people felt about working at Kickstarter. “When they talked about something that wasn’t great, we’d say ‘You’re not alone in that.’” The first organizers started with people they knew and expanded from there. Their coworkers’ concerns about a union were as varied as the employees themselves. “Every person has something different that’s important to them,” Zhang adds.
For many employees, unions were an alien entity. “For a lot of folks, it was like ‘What would that even look like here? That just happens on factory floors,’” Dougherty points out.
Jurado admits he was one of the people who hadn’t thought about unions applying to tech. “I had the privilege to not think about it,” he says. “That was a thing that tech workers don’t need because they’re paid very well.” But the organizers were able to point to the wave of unionizing in digital media, and even in places like museums to make the point that unions are not just for people who wear hard hats to work. “I would tell people ‘Look, LeBron James has a union, Tom Hanks has a union,’” Moore says. “A lot of rich, famous people are in unions because they work.”
“Part of my job is getting tech workers to realize that they are workers,” Reckers says. “The conditions that workers face in [tech] companies are not that different from conditions that workers face in other industries.”
Others wondered why a union was even necessary, since working conditions were already pretty good. Organizers argued that a union would help keep all of that secure even in bad times. “Our benefits are fantastic. Let’s get them in writing and contractually obligated so that management can’t take them away,” Moore would elaborate. “You don’t wait until you’re losing to start fighting.” For many who wanted a union, the fight wasn’t about benefits anyway.
Instead, they were focused on establishing more transparent practices for hiring, firing, and disciplinary action. They wanted improved processes for filing and responding to complaints of issues like sexual harassment, including oversight from a watchdog organization. People were concerned about ensuring pay parity between people in similar roles regardless of gender, race, or other status. And, perhaps unsurprisingly after the closure of Drip and the Always Punch Nazis controversy, they wanted employees to have a voice in major decisions.
Organizers also pointed to the rounds of layoffs at tech companies like Etsy and SoundCloud as examples of how things can go south. (Some Kickstarter employees had even experienced those firsthand.) Jurado had been laid off at Etsy as well as another startup before coming to Kickstarter. Zhang had a number of experiences with sexual harassment and toxic environments in previous workplaces. Kickstarter itself has had at least two rounds of mass layoffs. Even well-paid engineers “were cognizant of what managerial inconsistency can feel like,” Solanki says. “That volatility … is definitely something that united people.”
“I was organizing alongside engineers who made more than twice my salary,” Dougherty says. “But we shared that common struggle and there was a sense of solidarity.”
It was one thing for most people at Kickstarter to share a politically progressive political outlook, one that is ideologically friendly to unions. But it was another for them to be convinced they should sign on with a union in their own workplace. Driving home the personal benefits of unionizing was equally important. “Ideology and politics are not enough, you have to make a material case to people,” Moore says.
And it was important for the organizers to listen to people and try to understand where they were coming from, rather than pushing the union idea or losing patience. “You need to be open to hearing dissent,” Zhang asserts. That requires “having enough patience and love to be like, ‘I understand where you’re coming from, I hear you, I still really respect you and care about you.’”
Each organizing meeting began with discussing the group’s values and how those had, or had not, played out during the previous week. Everyone picked a different working group within the union effort to focus on: social media, outreach, even “vibes.” “People were able to do the thing that they’re good at,” Leckert says, and no one person was on the hook for any given task. Nearly everyone I spoke to mentioned the importance of “distributed power”—not just making decisions as a collective, but also being able to share tasks evenly so that people didn’t get burned out.
The organizers kept track of every single conversation and how it went to make sure they knew who to keep reaching out to. It was particularly important given that there is usually steady turnover in tech, as people get poached or leave for better opportunities. Every decision was made through consensus. They made sure to create an independent Slack so as not to use company resources. “We took great fucking notes,” Moore says. “We had really good record-keeping, the boring stuff that people sometimes don’t think about.”
Meanwhile, the core organizing group had to pick a union to align with. When they started, there wasn’t one particular union trying to organize tech workers, and the choice came down to Writers Guild of America, East, which had been working with digital journalists, and the Office and Professional Employees International Union. The first big vote was choosing one; OPEIU won out.
Last February, management got wind of the efforts and early the next month sent an email to the staff that alluded to the union effort. So the organizers went public with their campaign shortly after.
Company management opposed the creation of a union. In May of last year, CEO Aziz Hasan said in a companywide email that a union would “significantly change the way we operate and work together.” When recently asked to explain management’s stance at the time, Kate Bernyk, director of communications at Kickstarter, said in an email: “It was the company’s view that Kickstarter was better positioned to overcome its challenges, serve its mission, and do right by its employees and community without the framework of a union. This is because as a public benefit corporation and a small company, Kickstarter has always operated in a way that reduces the pressure to chase profits and keeps us focused on our mission: helping to bring creative projects to life.”
After going public, employees say they weathered management’s retaliation. In September, Moore and another prominent organizer, Clarissa Redwine, were fired. A third, Travis Brace, was told his position was being eliminated. Multiple employees argue that the three were let go because they were involved in unionizing. Moore, who worked on the outreach team, says that shortly after the union went public, he was put on a performance improvement plan for not “bringing in enough projects.” He says the next two quarters were his most productive at Kickstarter, but he was still let go. He has an unfair firing charge pending with the NLRB.
The company denies wrongdoing. “Kickstarter hasn’t retaliated against anyone for union organizing,” Kickstarter’s Gallagher says. “We fired two staff members in September who happened to be union organizers, but as we’ve said, they were fired for performance reasons.” Brace “was not let go for performance reasons or for union organizing. His job was eliminated because he was working on a service that we shut down.”
Still, the organizers’ goal was to get the company to voluntarily recognize the union after they were able to prove they had majority support through signed petitions. In early October, the organizers formally requested that management recognize the union based on those petitions. But management refused and instead pushed for an NLRB election, which typically makes it harder to successfully unionize.
Kickstarter claims its insistence on a formal election was motivated by a belief that a majority of employees didn’t support the union. “It was clear from the beginning that there was no consensus on the unionization question among our staff,” Gallagher says. “We had a responsibility to protect the rights of all of our staff members in this process, those who wanted a union and those who did not.” He called the election “the fairest and most democratic way to resolve the internal debate and ensure that all voices were heard.”
That stance took many by surprise. “We were very optimistic about the reaction we would get from management,” Solanki says. “We just kind of assumed that this is Kickstarter and everything will be perfectly fine.”
So organizers had to prepare for the tough battle of a union election. In December, they filed with the NLRB and then worked on cementing support among coworkers. They “ramped up efforts to have one-on-ones, made sure they talked to everyone,” Reckers says. Some people who had signed the petitions to management asking for voluntary recognition had become lukewarm, while others who had been hesitant before were now on board. The organizers checked in with everyone to make sure they knew where they stood and rally support for those who were wavering. It was “exhausting,” Reckers adds, and not just for organizers, but for other staff who were constantly being pestered about where they stood.
“We knew it would be a close margin,” Reckers remembers. The election finally took place on January 23.
Despite its resistance to the union, Kickstarter management did make some decisions that organizers felt were helpful. It didn’t put up a fight over who should be included in the bargaining unit, often a sticking point in unionizing campaigns as employees and management fight over who counts as management and who doesn’t. And it signed onto a neutrality agreement in the lead-up to the NLRB election, abstaining from communicating with employees about its point of view that they shouldn’t form a union. But Kickstarter management’s overall posture offered more evidence that tech workplaces aren’t so different after all. “Bosses are going to fight it,” says Aaron Petcoff, an organizer with the NYC Tech Workers Coalition. “It doesn’t matter if your company, in this case, is a public benefit corporation or how progressive the mission of your company is.” It took more than three weeks after the election to get the vote count. But as soon as they found out the tally—46 yes, 37 no—those in the NLRB office burst into cheers and applause. Everyone started to cry and hug each other. “It was not one emotion,” Zhang says. There was relief, happiness, disbelief. “Did we actually do it? Is this real?”’
“People were like, ‘I need a cigarette,’” Jurado says. He doesn’t smoke, but still considered having one to relieve the tension. Still, “it was such a joyful day. It’s going to go down as one of those memories that I’ll have forever.”
Now organizers have pivoted to the next, and perhaps even more challenging step: bargaining with management over a contract. Solanki hopes that the union can secure terms that will set a precedent for the rest of the industry.
Even before they begin contract negotiations, though, the union has had an impact. In the wake of a significant drop in new projects during the coronavirus pandemic, the company told employees that it would seek “significant cost-cutting.” The union was able to secure an agreement with management before those measures set in that ensures four months of severance pay and continued health benefits for anyone who gets laid off, recall rights so that those laid off can return to job openings in the future, and a release from noncompete agreements for those who accept severance pay. Kickstarter laid off 39 percent of its workforce in early May.
Their success could inspire others. OPEIU had already started getting calls from workers at other technology firms throughout the unionizing campaign. But the successful vote drew intense interest from tech employees at a range of companies. “It will encourage workers across the industry to take collective bargaining more seriously, to think about how it might fit into their workplaces and help address the issues they’re experiencing,” Petcoff says.
Employees at other tech companies are already speaking out against what they see as management misusing their work for purposes they don’t agree with. Google employees have staged a number of walkouts to protest its work with Customs and Border Protection. Microsoft employees have protested their employer’s work with ICE and on a Department of Defense project that could be used to improve drone strikes; the company decided not to renew the latter contract after employees spoke out. They’ve also been outraged at their companies’ mistreatment of their fellow workers. Google employees have protested sexual harassment allegations; Amazon employees recently staged a sickout in solidarity with warehouse workers who are getting sick with the coronavirus. “Tech workers seem to be, in their organizing, particularly interested in the product of their labor and the ethical considerations behind it,” Solanki notes. “There’s a lot of untapped energy there.”
What unionization offers is a way to give them more of a voice. “Internal organizing efforts around social justice issues cannot be done in isolation,” Reckers says. “Ultimately to guarantee that you have the right to have the ability to put pressure on the boss and to achieve your demands and achieve your goals with those walkouts and protest activity, you also need the protections of a union contract.” Google, for example, has fired a number of the employees who were involved in protests, although the company told The New York Times that they were fired for engaging “in intentional and often repeated violations of our long-standing data security policies.”
“I don’t think that we started this,” Jurado says. But “I think we’re a great signal of what’s possible.”
This story was supported by the journalism nonprofit the Economic Hardship Reporting Project.
More Great WIRED Stories
- During lockdown, Google Maps gives my son a way out
- The first shot: Inside the Covid vaccine fast track
- How gamers powered super-fast internet abroad
- Spaceship Earth and the value of utopian thinking
- The case for reopening schools
- 👁 What is intelligence, anyway? Plus: Get the latest AI news
- 📱 Torn between the latest phones? Never fear—check out our iPhone buying guide and favorite Android phones