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Inside the fight for Kickstarter’s union

The crowdfunding company’s organizing effort was divisive but still remains a landmark moment in the tech labor movement.

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An illustration depicting a surreal workplace obstacle course with workers navigating various hurdles in the form of office managers and paperwork on their way to a box to cast their vote
Illustration by Kyle Ellingson for The Verge

From his desk in Kickstarter’s Greenpoint office, Taylor Moore got out a pad of Post-its and started making a list of names. It was the fall of 2018, and Kickstarter, then a nine-year-old startup, had built a reputation as a different kind of tech company. Its founders vowed to measure success by the number of creative projects they helped bring to life, not the size of their profits. The company had reincorporated as a “public benefit corporation,” a legal designation that obliged the company leadership to consider the impact of their decisions on society, not just shareholders. But Moore’s list of names was the first step toward another potential distinction: he wanted Kickstarter to be the first white-collar technology workforce to unionize in US history. 

Moore, who is also a podcaster, loved working at Kickstarter. “In the early days, there was a rule that you couldn’t hire anyone unless they also had a creative side hustle or significant creative projects,” he told me. “The mission statement [to democratize culture] wasn’t bullshit. The founders and the early hires believed it.”

But it had been a rough year and a half for the company. In July 2017, Perry Chen, the company’s principal founder and former CEO, abruptly replaced Yancey Strickler to become Kickstarter’s interim CEO because he felt things were becoming “too bureaucratic.” In March, Chen quietly dropped the interim label. In the months after he took over, roughly 40 percent of the staff departed, including seven of the eight members of the former executive team. 

Chen was on a mission to help Kickstarter “live up to its potential,” but for the rank-and-file employees, what had once felt like a democratic company was beginning to feel more dictatorial. Workers complained of erratic changes to product road maps and misguided attempts to boost office morale, perhaps best exemplified by the time Chen brought in people dressed up as dinosaurs for a week to wander through the office making animal noises. The stunt was intended to infuse the office with some of the creative quirkiness of the startup’s early days, but the roars fell on deaf ears.  

“I remember looking at one co-worker from across the room, and she and I literally just shook our heads,” one early employee recalled. “We had never spoken before. We just shook our heads when we realized that this was supposed to be a prank or whatever. And she and I left together.” 

“It was like, come on, Perry, you can’t give us a deadline and then distract us with this bullshit,” said another. 

The dinosaur incident represented a larger tension within Kickstarter between the desire to be cool and the desire to be professional. It also was indicative of a growing rift between workers and management. 

This division came to a head in August 2018 when management decided to remove a satirical graphic novel called Always Punch Nazis from the platform. The right-wing news site Breitbart had written an article criticizing Kickstarter’s decision to leave a “violence-inciting project” on the platform. Management ordered it to be taken down, despite Kickstarter’s Trust and Safety team’s prior decision that the graphic novel had not actually violated company policy. 

After pressure from employees, the project was later reinstated. Employees celebrated the reversal, but Justine Lai, the Trust and Safety team member who shared management’s initial decision with the rest of the company, suffered a different fate. Two weeks after the Always Punch Nazis incident, she was brought into a windowless conference room with her manager and Kickstarter’s head of HR and told that she “could no longer be trusted.” One week later, Lai accepted a separation agreement.

“We were never on the same team.”

“They fired Justine, and the next day, I sat down at my desk and made a list of people that I thought might be into the idea of organizing,” Moore told me. “They can fire us; we can’t fire them. We were never on the same team.”

Taylor Moore was, in many ways, the face of the company. He had started five years prior as Kickstarter’s “front desk guy.” By 2018, he was working on the creator outreach team, but Moore would still regularly host Kickstarter happy hours and movie nights. As a hub of company social life, he was well-positioned to organize. Moore believed employees would benefit from a union. It might provide a greater say in the strategic direction of the company and better protection if they were let go. 

Although approval rates of unions in the US are currently at their highest point since 1965, in 2018, there wasn’t much precedent for white-collar employees at tech companies like Kickstarter to unionize. Googlers had yet to walk out. Employees at Activision and Amazon had yet to organize. 

But Moore and a small group of colleagues believed unionization was the best path toward progress, toward the aspirations that had initially drawn them to the startup. After all, it would certainly make Kickstarter a different kind of tech company — the kind it had, since its inception, aspired to be. 

Moore started making calls. 

Clarissa Redwine remembers Moore’s call coming out of the blue. At the time, she was the company’s lone West Coast employee, so the 6PM call meant Moore must have been at the office late. He told her about the lack of input he believed Kickstarter employees had in determining the direction of the company. He cited examples such as the Always Punch Nazis campaign and management’s controversial decision to cancel Drip — a Patreon-like crowdfunding tool Moore and others had spent the last year building out — before its planned launch. 

Then he got to the point. “Some of us have been talking about potentially forming a union,” he said. “Would you like to join us?”

“Kickstarter was such a special place to work.” She didn’t want to ruin it

Redwine was hesitant. She was already in the process of leaving everyone she knew in California to relocate her family to New York, closer to Kickstarter headquarters. She was intrigued by Moore’s pitch, but a union drive felt risky. She didn’t want to jeopardize her livelihood at a time when she was about to uproot her life.

Other employees were “concerned with the misappropriation of unions for use by privileged workers.” One former employee told me she didn’t feel the reasons for organizing were clear. “It was very strawman-y, like ‘get in or get off,’” she said. “Kickstarter was such a special place to work.” She didn’t want to ruin it. 

The hesitance to ruffle feathers was common among employees I spoke to who considered joining the organizing effort. In tech workplaces, “there’s such a family culture, and it feels very flat,” Grace Reckers, an organizer with the Office and Professional Employees International Union, which eventually worked with Kickstarter employees on their union drive, told Wired. “There’s this fear of conflict.” 

The organizers spent early meetings Googling questions like, “How to start a union?”

But Reckers knew as well as anyone that emphasizing family-like company bonds (“We care about each other here!”) was a common union-busting tactic. Employees needed contractual protections, not corporate sweet nothings.

After sleeping on it, Clarissa Redwine and several of her co-workers came around to Moore’s pitch. Organizing was an opportunity to make Kickstarter better — for both current and future employees. 

In New York, Redwine, Moore, and about a dozen other employees regularly gathered in Moore’s brick-walled podcasting studio around the corner from the office. The fridge was stocked with Sixpoint lager, and organizers took turns picking up pizza for the meetings. Organizing was exhilarating. “It felt like the Avengers,” Moore told me, with each employee bringing their unique superpower.

RV Dougherty, a member of the Trust and Safety team, taught the rest of the group some lessons they had learned from their past political organizing experience, and Travis Brace, a member of the Community team, helped lead new member outreach. But for the most part, everyone was an organizing novice. 

The organizers spent early meetings Googling questions like, “How to start a union?” They set up meetings with every non-managerial employee, probing their interest over lunches, coffee breaks, and breakfasts before work.

Soon after joining the effort, Redwine was asked to be part of the organizers’ leadership committee, which raised her profile as a public face of the union drive. The lead organizers sent out emails to the entire company explaining the rationale behind the union effort, with their headshots at the bottom of each message.

“I hope I don’t need my seat belt,” said Moore, “but I’m still going to put it on every time I get in the car.”

But as Redwine became more visible, she received pushback from co-workers who were less supportive of the effort. One time, Redwine recommended an idea for a piece of editorial content to a colleague on the marketing team. This was a regular practice for employees like Redwine who interacted with Kickstarter creators on a regular basis. The colleague responded that she shouldn’t tell her how to do her job and reported Redwine’s action to management.

Pushback came in other forms, too. In her first three years at the company — before she joined the organizing effort — Redwine had received glowing performance reviews from her manager. But after becoming a more visible member of the drive, she started to receive “personality feedback,” criticism, often gendered, that addresses a worker’s character rather than their performance. She was told her “tone wasn’t nice enough” and that she was “failing to build trust with leadership.”

Moore also began to receive more critical feedback. But unlike Redwine’s, his feedback was based primarily on his output. He was put on a performance improvement plan and given specific metrics to hit if he wanted to remain in good standing with the company.

In the labor organizing world, this type of criticism of a worker’s performance and character during a union drive is referred to as “pretext.” Because it is illegal to fire someone for organizing, companies suddenly attempt to scrutinize a worker’s performance — a common union-busting tactic.

But it wasn’t just management pushing back. Many employees were not on board, either. “If we’re talking indoctrinated form of wokeness, Kickstarter was patient zero,” one former non-managerial employee told me. “The workplace treated us very well. The organizing effort was childish, shortsighted, manipulative, and poorly executed.”

As Redwine, Moore, and other organizers met one-on-one with employees to listen to their grievances and attempt to stoke their interest in the union, Kickstarter executives became more vocal about their opposition. In a companywide email, Aziz Hasan, who took over for Chen as CEO in 2019, declared that the company would not voluntarily recognize the union. In his words, a union would “significantly change the way we operate and work together,” and the company would be “better set up to be successful without the framework of a union.”

But the denial only further motivated the push. In one-on-one meetings, organizers emphasized that they weren’t just advocating for benefits and pay equity; they were also fighting for a say in the strategic decisions of the company. They were fighting for time-off increases commensurate with the overtime hours they worked and for protection in case their jobs were threatened. “I hope I don’t need my seat belt,” said Moore, “but I’m still going to put it on every time I get in the car.”

In September 2019, Moore and Redwine were each brought into a conference room — the same windowless room in which Lai, the Trust and Safety member, had been let go — and were unceremoniously fired. The explanations were vague. The previous two quarters had been Moore’s most productive quarters at Kickstarter, far exceeding every metric laid out for him in his performance improvement plan. Redwine was let go “for performance reasons.” 

Moore and Redwine decided to forgo their severance pay, which would have required them to sign nondisparagement agreements, and both filed unfair firing claims with the National Labor Relations Board. 

“@kickstarter I will not be signing your termination agreement containing a non-disparagement clause,” Redwine tweeted on September 12th, 2019. “You can keep my severance.”

In February 2020, five months after Moore and Redwine were fired, two dozen employees traveled from the Kickstarter office in Greenpoint to the National Labor Relations Board’s downtown office to hear the results of the previous month’s union vote. This had been nearly two years in the making. The organizers needed a majority of eligible employees to vote in favor of the union for it to be recognized. Everything had led to this moment.

“If you worshiped the concept of being boring, this is the church you would build,” Moore told me of the NLRB hearing room where the vote count took place. But despite the beige backdrop of government bureaucracy, the room was buzzing. Moore sat with his fellow organizers RV Dougherty and Travis Brace in the back of the room. Current employees, representatives of Kickstarter management, and lawyers from the company’s law firm sat in rows ahead of them. An NLRB representative opened the sealed box of votes at the front of the room.

The representative read the votes, excruciatingly, one by one. Employees kept personal tallies, tightly gripped pencils slipping from their sweaty palms. After a half hour, the results were in: 46 yes, 37 no. It had been close. Applause and tears filled the room. The Kickstarter union was the first to win wall-to-wall recognition at a tech company in US history.

Moore felt excitement but also relief. “It was like I had picked up an anvil when I first wrote out that list of names of potential organizers on the Post-its,” he told me. “And after that vote, I could finally put it down.”

“[The union drive] felt very Animal Farm — people didn’t appreciate what they had.”

In May 2020, Kickstarter lost 39 percent of its employees to layoffs and company buyouts due to the economic strain of the pandemic. But rather than receive the two to three weeks of severance pay management originally proposed, the union negotiated for departing employees to receive four months’ pay and a minimum of four months of health insurance. “Both non-union and union-represented employees received the same offer of severance pay by Kickstarter,” a PR representative from the company told me. 

That September, the NLRB found that there was sufficient evidence that Kickstarter management had violated the National Labor Relations Act by firing Moore. The following month, the company agreed to give him $36,598.63 in back pay. The settlement was validating, but for Moore, the vote was still the real victory.

“Power should not be concentrated in the hands of a few, period,” he told me. “If you are under someone else’s power, you should have a say in how that power is used. That’s the world I believe in. That’s the world I want to build. And anyone who claims those as their principles is commanded to organize their workplace today.”

Today, Moore is working for a podcast production company he founded called Fortunate Horse, and Redwine is an independent consultant based in Vermont. The irony that neither of them got to reap the benefits of their organizing effort is not lost on them. They each knew going in that the Kickstarter union was not just about them. It’s easy to assume that a union drive is a result of disliking your company, but Moore and Redwine each told me otherwise; they organized because they believed Kickstarter, so much so that its employees were worth fighting for.

In June 2022, two and a half years after Kickstarter workers went public with their intent to unionize, the Kickstarter union ratified its first-ever collective bargaining agreement with management. It guarantees annual wage increases and pay equity reviews, limits the use of contract employees in favor of full-time jobs, and standardizes grievance and arbitration procedures, among other terms.

Unlike the dynamics of a family, at-will employment is, by definition, conditional. Loyalty to the business will always supersede loyalty to employees, as many tech workers recently learned the hard way. Kickstarter’s collective bargaining agreement makes the terms of those conditions explicit. 

How Kickstarter will do given the economic downturn, the market shifts, and the unionization, however, remains to be seen. Currently, the company is in a rebuilding phase. Last October, Kickstarter hired Everette Taylor, the former CMO of Artsy, as its new CEO. And Taylor recently brought on two ex-Twitter marketing leaders to help revitalize the Kickstarter brand.

In the years since Kickstarter workers began organizing, labor organizing has spread to other corners of the tech sector, though mostly in the blue-collar rungs. In April 2022, Amazon warehouse workers on Staten Island voted to unionize. In June, Apple retail workers did the same. In many ways, Kickstarter’s union win remains unique, as a white-collar tech workforce.

Some current and former non-managerial employees are still vehemently against the union. “Kickstarter was such a special place to work, and the employees kind of ruined it,” one former employee told me. “[The union drive] felt very Animal Farm — people didn’t appreciate what they had.”

But if nothing else, Kickstarter’s new collective bargaining agreement gives workers more protection in the case of layoffs. The presence of a union holds the leaders of Kickstarter accountable not just to their profits and their mission but to their employees, too.

“When you’re a worker in a system where you’re only ever rewarded for outworking your peers, it can create a really unhealthy understanding of your place in the power structure,” Redwine told me. “We turned our friendships and shared experiences into power.”

This article is adapted from Simone Stolzoff’s book, The Good Enough Job: Reclaiming Life from Work, out now.