Kickstarter union seen as breakthrough for tech activism

Kickstarter union seen as breakthrough for tech activism
© Getty

The decision by employees at crowdfunding company Kickstarter to unionize is a historic first in the tech industry, highlighting the growing trend of worker activism in Silicon Valley. 

Kickstarter staff on Tuesday became the first white-collar tech workers to unionize, the culmination of more than a year of organizing.

Workers in the tech industry have long sought to organize, but experts who spoke to The Hill cited Kickstarter, a prominent company in the industry, as a sign of a new shift as union efforts have ramped up in recent years and increasingly attracted white-collar workers. 

ADVERTISEMENT

Tech workers have stepped up their efforts to press companies to take strong stances on political issues like climate change while also demanding changes in labor practices such as hiring a more diverse workforce.

The start of the union organizing campaign at Kickstarter, which helps projects raise money, was tied to an internal debate in 2018 about a comic book called “Always Punch Nazis” on the company's website that received negative coverage from right-wing outlet Breitbart News.

Employees said it did not violate Kickstarters policies, while management disagreed. The comic was ultimately allowed to stay up, but the disagreement itself reportedly led to the creation of Kickstarter United a year later.

That kind of collective action, primarily driven by disagreements over morals and ethics, is the theme of much of the upswell of tech organizing in recent year, according to experts.

“I think that it represents a really interesting shift ... from a shareholder conception of capitalism to a stakeholder conception of capitalism,” said Nataliya Nedzhvetskaya, a doctoral student at the University of California, Berkeley and the co-creator of a database that tracks worker activity in the tech industry.

“Traditionally union organizing has been sort of a strategy employed by blue-collar workers. And it revolves around these sort of traditional issues, like higher wages, fighting for benefits, fighting for more flexible work hours. ... This action seems to be motivated primarily by more moral issues.” 

Meredith Whittaker, a former Google employee who helped lead protests at the company and now works on artificial intelligence at New York University, said tech workers said changing their employers' practices on such issues went hand-in-hand with improving working conditions.

ADVERTISEMENT

“Organizers in tech ... don't want to be exploited at work and they don't want to contribute to the exploitation of people outside,” she told The Hill.

Silicon Valley has seen a broad range of worker activism in recent years.

Many industry experts pointed to the opposition in 2018 within Google to Project Maven, a contract to help the Department of Defense track individuals in video footage captured by drones. That pressure campaign was ultimately successful — Google abandoned its work on the project.

“I think Maven was a moment in which it was suddenly clear that the emperor was naked,” said Whittaker, who helped lead a 20,000 member protest organized primarily against that contract and a reported $90 million payout to an executive accused of sexual misconduct. 

“That was a moment when people saw clearly that no longer was there a debate about whether Google was willing to do evil; the conversation needed to turn to ‘How do we stop it?’”

Since then, workers at major companies like Amazon and Google have organized to get employers to change their operations.

“The kind of recent activism in the tech industry among white-collar tech workers we've seen — maybe the starting point was the Google employees protesting the Maven contracts — is definitely something new in Silicon Valley history,” Margaret O’Mara, a professor of history at the University of Washington who has written extensively about Silicon Valley, told The Hill.

Google has been the site of some of the more successful worker organizing efforts. Ninety Google contractors in Pittsburgh and more than 2,000 Google cafeteria staff in the Bay Area voted to unionize last year.

In 2018, workers at Saleforce protested the software company's contract with U.S. Customs and Border Protection. A year later, workers at GitHub did the same for a contract with Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

Amazon has been another hotbed for collective action. In January, more than 350 Amazon workers broke company policy by posting quotes critical of climate-related actions taken by the online retail giant.

When CEO Jeff BezosJeffrey (Jeff) Preston BezosJeff Bezos's wealth hits record high 1B How competition will make the new space race flourish Just because Democrats are paranoid about the election doesn't mean there aren't problems MORE, whose net worth exceeds $130 billion, earlier this month committed $10 billion to a personal fund to combat climate change, Amazon Employees for Climate Justice, the group protesting the company’s environmental policies, spoke out about Amazon’s ties to oil and gas companies.

“Bezos' announcement shows how effective it is when employees speak up about climate change,” the group wrote in a statement.

The surge in action has been met with some pushback from tech companies.

Amazon reportedly threatened to fire at least two employees who expressed concern about the company's environmental policies.

Four Google employees in December filed charges with the National Labor Relations Board claiming they were fired for labor organizing efforts. An investigation into those claims is ongoing.

Both companies have denied those allegations, saying the workers were fired for performance-related issues or for breaking unrelated company policies.

Google and Kickstarter have both reportedly hired firms that specialize in tamping down unionization efforts.

Experts that spoke to The Hill said these actions are in line with how other private sector industries have responded to worker activism.

“Tech employers, when it comes to union organizing, are perhaps not as different as was previously assumed ... really they’re just behaving in a way that is quite similar to most other private sector employers,” John Logan, an expert on anti-union strategy at San Francisco State University, told The Hill.

“This is the union busting playbook,” Whittaker said. “There's nothing to 2.0 about it.” 

Despite those actions, workers have succeeded in pushing tech companies on some key issues, leading to contracts — like Project Maven — being canceled and new climate commitments being adopted.

ADVERTISEMENT

Those movements also say they’ve done important work in holding their employers accountable. 

“These workers are some of the few levers we have to hold these companies accountable. Projects like DragonFly, Maven and others would not be known by the public, would probably not even be known by lawmakers, unless worker whistleblowers and organizers had brought them to the public attention,” Whittaker said.

Kickstarter's website says it has about 146 employees, making it a relatively smaller player compared to the tech behemoths that dominate Silicon Valley. Of those, 83 took part in the 47-36 vote to unionize. Whether the company's model will be followed by others remains to be seen.

Outside of the tech giants, around 40 Spin e-scooter workers in San Francisco voted to unionize last year. In early February, 15 employees at the delivery app Instacart in Chicago also successfully unionized.

Nedzhvetskaya said she expects more to follow Kickstarter.

“Employees at other companies are going to look at this and say, 'If it happened to Kickstarter, why not my workplace?'” Nedzhvetskaya said.

“I would be surprised if there weren’t more [companies] to do this in the next couple of years.”