Engelberg Center Live!

Chapter 4: The Leak

Episode Summary

Management discovers the union and begins to implement a strategy.

Episode Transcription


Welcome back to the oral history of Kickstarter’s union. So far, we’ve heard workers challenge management’s decision to censor a small comic book project about a superhero punching nazis.  We’ve covered the resulting wide spread retaliation from management that cultivates a strong whisper network. And once workers started talking to each other and sharing individual experiences, it became clear they needed a seat at the table… to build a better Kickstarter.  


The second or third meeting I ever had with someone and I, and I'm kind of given the spiel. Like I just gave you. I'm telling you know I'm going through the building up an argument for a structural change, you know, establishing it as necessary, and then revealing that maybe it's the answer. So union, you know, we're getting there. And this person is nodding her head and nodding her head, and I can see that she's already thought all the same stuff and then before I can even get to it. She says we need a goddamn union. And I said, I think so too. And then she said, I'm gonna fight like hell until we have one. . - Taylor

I really remember him being like, you want to organize a union with me and I was like, hell yeah like let's fucking do this.  - Amy

Organizers start reaching out beyond our immediate social circles to coworkers across the company.  This is actually when I joined the union effort more actively. Taylor called me up, did his spiel, I slept on the idea, and first thing in the morning let him know I was in. But not every chat led to immediate support - some took time.  

Honestly, initially. I was a little bit skeptical.  I wasn't familiar with what a collective bargaining agreement looks like or how you got there.  I just thought, you know, are we actually going to be able to garner the support that we need to get this done and is a union, the right solution to the problems that we're having.  All of us kind of went through a similar trajectory. I think there were a few of us to immediately heard the word Union and started collecting signatures. But I have to admit to not being one of those people. - Trav

This was a common theme in these early outreach chats. A general openness to worker-led structural change but an initial hesitation that a union is the right path.  Workers would discuss other paths like converting Kickstarter to a cooperative or pioneering a new model all together. But all of these other options required management cooperation and support.  Whether or not Kickstarter unionized was entirely up to workers. So organizers pushed on and became more and more comfortable with these pointed one on ones.

How I would bring it about was like, uh, you’re kinda new here… How's it going so far? They were forthwith. Like you know, to be honest Alfie, not that great. I was like, Whoa, what's up? And I'm like, well, I just found out that, uh, you don't talking to my coworkers that I somehow I just found out that, um, that they're making more money than I did. And I don't think that's fair. And I was like, I think you're right. That's not fair. - Alfie

I just told him the truth. He was only sympathetic and understanding and validated what I was going through was really frustrating sounded like bullshit. But he also suggested that I may come to a meeting.  - Alex

Hey, I don't, I don't know if you're aware. We are kind of starting this thing out right now and, and you know, it's very nascent, but if you want to come in on Monday these are things that we want to talk about. And they were like, Oh, that sounds awesome. Yeah. I would love to come. And they did come.  - Alfie 

In these one on ones, some organizers shared individual challenges they had experienced or witnessed to illustrate Kickstarter’s systemic challenges and bring the repercussions into focus. 

When I was first told about the union. I was like, being part of you all is risky and and I like this job. So I'm going to not be a part of it. But then the stories came.  Something about Like hearing the person directly. Tell me about the abuse of power that happened to them directly in person. Yeah, and that nothing was done about it. You know, it went from it went from a place of like it of like hearsay that can have a story to this is a first hand account and that tipped me, I think.  - AnonB

Ideally you should not exist in a vacuum.  And if you spend any time talking to your co workers, you would very quickly understand that one person's positive experience was not indicative of experience that other folks had at the company.  And as I spent time thinking about it. The differences between myself and others, they were arbitrary. - David 

As we’re going through this process of learning from each other and building support...  more and more people start to become aware of who’s actively organizing the union. This new level of visibility brings risk.  While it can make it easier for colleagues to join in the conversation and feel more comfortable trusting the group, it can also expose individuals to management and put the union effort on leadership’s radar.  

Do you mind if I ask who else is involved? And I know now that that is a terrifying question to ask an organizer.  But at the time I was just trying to get a gauge on like who were the people doing this.  And so I asked who else is involved and she said actually one person did say that they wouldn’t mind if I gave you their contact information and name.  And I was like, ok, I would actually like to know that.  And she was like, Robert. And I was like Oh! Because then in my head I made the connection that, well if Robert’s involved, then Amy’s involved, and then Sarah’s involved. Like I made all of these the network and was like oh all of these they are all great people - ya, I’m down.  I’m in! And she’s like, wait, really? And I was like absolutely, I think it’s important for people to fight for their rights I just wanted to make sure I know what I’m getting into before I do it. - Toy  


These outreach conversations bring a natural momentum to the campaign and start to sharpen the will of the collective. We had been listening and learning from new members and building a better understanding of how a union could strengthen Kickstarter.  This early in the process, before we had a majority of support, it was important not to fall into a mindset of building a list of demands or settling on specific goals. This was a time for building our base and making a case for worker power.  Once we had a majority or even supermajority of support from coworkers, then, together, we could decide what we wanted to fight for.  This strategy has two major strengths, it allows the initial base building to unfold unfettered.  By leaving the conversion of what we could fight for open ended,outreach conversations could encourage whatever was most important for the individual.  The result was a conversation that sounded like this: Oh, that’s a great idea and something that could help a lot of our coworkers, we could totally fight for that.  

The last thing that any of us wanted to do was build a union that was, you know, based on principles or grievances that weren't shared by our colleagues that seems like the ultimate failure here.  - Trav

The second major strength in keeping demands undefined, is it made it harder for management to simply give us what we wanted in order to undermine the union drive.  We needed to build the union first so that we would actually have the power we needed to push for and maintain lasting change.

In parallel to reaching out across the company and having pointed conversation about the union, organizers were building internal organizational structure that could support this undertaking.  Every Monday night after work, we would pile into Taylor’s studio just around the corner from Kickstarter.

It looks like a radio shack exploded in an English country manor.  - Taylor

Organizers are sitting on a hodgepodge of seats, pouring drinks from a little bar in the corner, and settling in for another session to map a path forward. And this path needed to start with thoughtful processes and structure.

The work that organizers are trying to do is to create long term and lasting change. And the only way we do that is if we replicate the culture we want to see in the world as we're doing the work in real time.  - RV

Organizers wanted values that could guide the collective and help new members envision a brighter Kickstarter. We would open our meetings by naming our collective values of solidarity, transparency, distributed power, and joy.

Yeah, I mean I think joy really stands out to me, I always loved that. To my therapist, once I was like this is the closest thing I have to church. You know, like a like a weekly meeting where like you build up sort of a community and you all like work on something larger than yourself. And yeah, that that brought a lot of joy for me too. - Patrick

We usually had a couple new coworkers join these organizing meetings every week so we would often pause to share how the group made decisions. We repeated this explanation so often that it became a bit of a shtick:

Oh boy, decisions. How to make a choice. Yes, a problem that that humanity has been faced with for centuries or millennia.... Here at Kickstarter united we go with the VISTA five method, which is a collective decision making technique for achieving consensus. - Patrick

Working groups start to form around key objectives and needs that the group identifies. And these working groups were more than a way to get things done, they were a way to engage new members and decentralize power.

Everybody Kickstarter has a different skill set and we had a wide variety of different working groups so we would, you know, have more people involved in the process. - Corey

I along with lots of other folks I Kickstarter united helped out and wrote Weekly communications on behalf of Kickstarter united. There were other folks that helped me right and there were other folks that Were right there, alongside me helping out as editor this and I couldn't have done it without them. - David 

At the end of every meeting, we would affirm folks for what they did that week.  I think it is impossible to work as hard as we all did, I mean it’s not impossible but it’s kind of miserable to work as hard as we did without being recognized for the work that you contributed to the whole.  That is something I know about myself, that if I’m to keep working at a certain capacity then I need to be affirmed that someone is taking notice that I’m doing it and I mean some people don’t need that. Fucking Corey. He is incredible because he just does things behind the scenes and doesn't say anything but we know you did it Corey and you’re so incredible and I thank you for that.  The way that they were done was so kind.  It was literally like, at the end of every meeting, I would like to affirm Yatrik for taking notes. And everyone snap snap snap snap snap…  It just brought people together and smiles all around.  I think it also encourages the rest of the community to step up. - Toy

Organizers were figuring out how to build a collective step by step and how to build a culture of care. But the union didn’t get everything right from the jump. One thing that stands out to many organizers as we look back is that... we should have created a clear process for addressing intra union conflict.

How do we also hold ourselves accountable. The that better version that we are asking of our employer. I think we should have prioritize the values of our Union and the safety of all of us over the sort of mad dash towards numbers.  - Alex

But we were working through these growing pains together and even though we got some things wrong or it took us a while to learn some lessons, the union persisted.  

I was delighted at how resilient our union ended up being. - Alex


So we were learning and growing... we had direction and momentum...  But there was one big open question about the process of unionizing, defining who was able to join the union and who wasn’t. Organizers knew we needed the support of 50% + 1 of eligible workers but what types of workers were legally eligible to join the union was open to interpretation.

Is there a way that we can, um, unionize number one, all positions. So engineers, product designers, outreach members, trust and safety members, community support members, um, designers, et cetera. Like, is there a way that we can unionize all of those folks, um, in the same unit, um, knowing that that would help create more collective power. - RV

Looking at the roles and titles across the company, organizers saw one group of workers who, if they could be added to the bargaining unit, could increase our numbers and our collective power.  These workers were on teams across the company, they shared our frustrations, and they had extremely limited power within the company… This was the pool of lower level managers.  

Under the standard rules of the National Labor Relations Act, managers are generally not eligible to be part of a union.  However,  reading through the NLRA’s description of a manager, organizers felt there was an argument to be made that lower level managers at Kickstarter were managers in name only, and that they should be eligible to join the union. In a nutshell, the National Labor Relations Act defines a manager as any person acting as an agent of the employer, directly or indirectly.  So think of all the different roles at a company that are essentially acting on the company’s behalf to protect and centralized power.  This is the leadership team, members of legal who advise the company on matters that impact employees, members of HR who have access to sensitive information like salaries and benefits, and of course, anyone who has the power to hire and fire someone on the spot. 

When we looked at how lower level managers fit that definition at Kickstarter… things got pretty gray.  Simply put, our lower level managers, because of how little power that had in practice, functioned more like a worker than a manager.  This put them in a community of interest with the rest of Kickstarter’s eligible workers.

Oftentimes, especially in tech. There's a lot more in common with people, you're managing the people that you're working with every day, there is with the kind of executive that you report to. I think there’s an argument for the fact that we had hiring and firing power but I think in practice that was just not as true.  The person I hired around that time like I wasn’t involved in setting their salary… There’s zero chance I would have just been able to say this person is fired without having that checked by the VP of Engineering. - Amy

Exploring ways to include these lower level managers in the union became a central topic of discussion in the early days of Kickstarter United.

What we wanted, at least at the beginning. I mean, all of us, we voted. To include functional managers in the bargaining unit like basically everyone below and SVP level because that's sort of reflected how things worked at Kickstarter. They were just part of our teams, basically, and they often didn't have any idea what was going on at the company like any more than we did.  They were always pitched to us as, like, well, if you have a problem. Just bring it up with your manager and they'll, they'll sort it out, but Often, that wasn't the case because you would bring it bring the problem up with your manager and they often with very good intentions would Bring that up to their managers, but that often went nowhere. After that, through, you know, no fault of your manager, often, it was just sort of a system that was set up to not incorporate worker feedback. - Patrick

The modern tech company is not built You know, like a fan belt factory in Michigan different organization principles. It's like It's like putting a square peg in a round hole to try and get these new companies organized along the guidelines that were built for different people at different times. - Taylor 

If we wanted to build a union that included as many roles as possible, we needed a path to recognition that supported this strategy. There are a few different well worn paths to building a union, one is forging a solidarity union where workers collectively hold the company accountable outside of any legal framework.  Solidarity unions can be effective if a significant number of workers sign on, but from what we understood, they are also somewhat risky because they operate without any additional legal protections. At this stage we were essentially functioning like a solidarity union but if we wanted legal protection from the National Labor Relations Board - which is the federal agency responsible for governing employer and union relations in the US.  If we wanted that level of security, we had to do more. We had to pick one of two legally protected paths to forming a union.

One path led to voluntary recognition by Kickstarter’s management. This was pretty close to a solidarity union, with the additional advantage that it would be backed by the NLRB. In theory, pursuing voluntary recognition allows workers to have more control over how the bargaining unit is defined because they can negotiate eligibility directly with management rather than strictly adhering to the NLRB rules. We then collect signatures from a majority of coworkers, present the signed union cards to a third part, usually an independent arbitrator that the employer and union mutually agree on. This third party verifies the union has majority support, and management agrees to treat the collective as a union. 

The other path is essentially involuntary recognition.  If management doesn’t agree to voluntarily recognize the union, workers are forced into the more regulated path of a secret ballot election overseen by the NLRB. An NLRB sanctioned election is where a majority of eligible workers vote to become a union and the government forces the company to recognize the union and bargain a contract with workers. This is the least collaborative and most adversarial path. 

One of the key differences between these paths is who decides which workers are eligible to be part of the union.  If the union can successfully win voluntary recognition, then organizers have the opportunity to work directly with management to negotiate eligibility.  Because organizers wanted flexibility in who was eligible and we initially thought Kickstarter’s leadership would be supportive of a union, we started to plan ahead for voluntary recognition. 

More and more of these questions about the nitty gritty process of forming a union were starting to pop up.  It was about time we brought in people with experience building these structures and navigating the National Labor Relations Act.  

Figuring out which union to work with, um, was a challenge because no one had successfully organized in tech before. - RV

We were really looking for a Union that had like a lot of values aligned with ours.  Making sure that the union members themselves were like kind of had the center of power that like the Union wasn't going to tell us what to do.  - Amy

The strategy working group reached out to a handful of unions that had local chapters across the country.  These large established unions are also called nationals. It’s handy to make that semantic distinction because when workers refer to “the union” they are referring to themselves and their coworkers but sometimes they are referring to an existing organization chosen to support and legally represent the union. There’s a bit of insider code switching / mind melding required to differentiate these two definitions of “the union” so for now I’ll try to use national when referring to the established large unions that support and represent workers. Connecting with these nationals was a brand new experience for most organizers.  The strategy working group was searching for inroads, sometimes getting introductions from friends and sometimes just filling out the little contact form on the national’s website. After research and a lot of conversations with the contenders and conversations with workers who had worked with these unions before, after all of this work, we whittle it down to two: WGAE, the Writers Guild of America East, and OPEIU, the Office and Professional Employees International Union.

So we decided as a group that this is going to be our first big vote, we are going to practice what we preach and we're going to make it fully democratic. And the process was really fun that process was we are going to have people in the Union write opinion pieces like essays arguing for both. And we were also going to have live debates. - Taylor

Monday night, again we pile into Taylor’s studio around the corner from Kickstarter. This would be a turning point, a critical step toward unionization.  As the debat kicked off, it was clear a lot of us were excited about WGAE. They had the values we wanted, had represented unions at notable cultural institutions.  And they had a strong track record of winning voluntary recognition. But there were some drawbacks for WGAE. At the time, WGAE wasn’t committed to organizing tech companies and if they decided to work with us, it was likely they would only be able to organize roles that could, in some way, be defined as writers, which was a pretty small subset of Kickstarter staff. 

WGA would have been a weird sort of strong arming of some of us into the category of writers was, I believe it was one of our friends and colleagues who said that aren't even as let's be honest, bullshit.  - Alex

We were voting when one of those unions hadn't even decided if they wanted us yet. Meanwhile, OPEIU was saying, not only do we want you. We want to dedicate resources and time to organizing the tech industry.  They would help spread that fire to other companies and I really felt like we had to make the choice that helped the future the most.  Because, wouldn't it be a shame, even if we won, but then it stopped at Kickstarter.  - Taylor

The vote landed on OPEIU and we started to collaborate right away.  They sent us a dedicated organizer who had unionized workplaces before and who we had met a few times before the debate.  Eventually we had a small team of support from OPEIU. 

It didn't take long for me to meet the folks who were working at Kickstarter to realize like this was something that was really important and that had a movement that was growing beyond this just a company but elsewhere as well. - Grace

The OPEIU organizers jumped into the union effort in our very next meeting. One of the first big challenges they helped us tackle was the looming open question of lower level manager eligibility.  

Because we at Kickstarter are dying to have these conversations. We want to know if we're breaking the goddamn law.  - Taylor

Our lead organizer from OPEIU had interviews with all of the lower level managers who we wanted to include.  One night, just as our meeting was about to start, our OPEIU reps jump on a call for the final word on this manager issue. 

They told me on that phone call that all the names we had given them were eligible for organizing. They could be in the bargaining unit.  That's what they told me. And so immediately after I hung up. I opened the door and I relayed that information to everyone else. - Taylor 

OPEIU was saying. If you want to include managers and might involve some extra work for you. It might be more difficult. It's definitely not usually how things are done, but You know, the Union is you. And if you're willing to fight for this and it's a priority for you and you guys are organized. You can make it happen. And so we had one meeting where we just put it to a vote, we, you know, all the managers who are in the room at that point. Stepped out and we just did a vote, and it was unanimous, as far as I remember, to try to include functional managers in the bargaining unit if we could. - Patrick

OPEIU also helped us build a strategy based on what they’d done in the past but tailored to the unique company structure of Kickstarter as a Public Benefit Corporation. 

When it comes to any campaign we we do a period of strategic corporate research on the company just to understand what pushback we expect, what sorts of challenges to expect down the line. So in terms of it being a public benefit corporation I that is pretty rare.  It gave us a sense that maybe a naive sense that we would be working with a set of leadership that understood some of the same values that we agreed upon and that we thought there might be some sort of cooperation, because they had received such a designation. Another piece of Kickstarter being a PBC is that with such a designation, there is a bit of a, I would say external and internal pressure to abide by a certain set of values.  We realized that we were going to need this to leverage this designation of Public Benefit Corporation to show that there were some contradictions within management's rhetoric.   - Grace 


By the end of January 2019, the union drive was picking up steam. Organizers had aligned with a major national, OPEIU, had a clear understanding of who we wanted in the bargaining unit, and outreach to new members was gaining momentum. Then, one day, something seemingly unrelated to the union happened.  Sarah, one of our most active organizers, was fired and no one knew why.  She was never given a performance improvement plan, never told that she was not meeting expectations, never given any semblance of due process. We were all furious and confused but we chalked it up to retaliation for the role she’d played in the collective action for Always Punch Nazis a few months earlier.  We’ll look closer at Sarah’s experience later in the oral history but for now, all you need to know is that she was fired a week after having a union outreach meeting with a coworker who would become the most vocal anti union worker at the company and she was fired just a week before management kicked off a campaign to kill the union in its crib.


On February 8th 2019, a week after Sarah was fired, senior management pulled about a dozen upper level and long time engineers into a meeting to discuss how staff was feeling about the company.  

Initially management thought that the Union effort was primarily in the engineering team. So the very first thing they did was hold a meeting with like somewhat arbitrarily like all engineers who had been here before a specific date. Or like had joined the company before specific date.  - Amy

I was seeing this more as a first step.  Just kinda trying to get the right people to get in the right rooms to have the most productive conversations. - VP of Community Strategy 

In this ad hoc meeting workers hesitantly mention a couple core concerns. They talk about how feedback has felt devalued by leadership.  Workers mention how staff has been asking for an anonymous reporting tool for over a year. A few express discomfort with Perry’s operational structure, Essences. And workers stress how financial transparency has been sorely lacking and the VP of Engineering responds: 

I think if you poll the senior leadership team we would all agree that we want to have more financial transparency.  - VP of Engineering 

It was clear senior leadership felt a sense of urgency and were serious about listening to the group’s feedback.  This meeting was somewhat unprecedented and staff wasn’t sure if rumors of union organizing were what prompted this new level of responsiveness from senior leadership. 

We were like, hmmm, it seems like they could know but we didn’t know until later.  We did eventually get confirmation that they definitely knew about the union, and that was specifically and explicitly why they set up that meeting.  - Amy

This was kind of in the whispers stage where we all suspected that there was some degree of knowledge that leadership had. But we were, you know, looking for ways to kind of confirm or deny that.  

The union’s strategy working group met up to debrief and craft contingency plans for the possibility that management had become aware of the union drive. If management became aware of the union before the union was ready to announce itself, management could take steps to stop the unionization process before organizers can secure majority support. They cycled through every scenario they could imagine… 

If management beats us to the announcement. If management, you know, start kind of like Holding captive audience meetings without explicitly mentioning knowledge of the Union. I remember sitting down and kind of thing. No one leaves until we have a plan for every possible outcome.  - Trav

Management’s awareness of organizing starts to spread across the union and organizers start to feel a new sense of insecurity and pressure. All of that space organizers had for the first few months to build worker support without pressure from the top, and to have work to worker conversations, all of this breathing room was about to be smothered by management. 

I remember other organizers telling me that Management had some knowledge of our organizing spreadsheets that management had some knowledge of our numbering system that will use some sort of rank enthusiasm.  And that was alarming. - Alex

Security became very important and the Union started to compartmentalize a lot of information. - David

Each working group is going to have their own Google Drive folder.  We wanted to allow people within Kickstarter united to be able to have access to them as long as they're participating in the process of creating and maintaining these documents. - Corey

After management becomes aware of the organizing effort, everything accelerates.  Just a week after this odd meeting with engineers, the same senior leadership team holds another meeting with a smaller group of low level engineering managers. 

We all sit down, like the room is just like really tense… Amy

After an awkward silence, the VP of Engineering kicks things off. He opens with a direct statement. 

Well, let's start. Um, we have become aware that some kind of collected action or possibly a union effort has been going on at the company and we know that people in this room are involved. And then just like pauses and there was just this like really tense. Silence Where we're all just like looking at each other and it's like okay like what do you want us to say this, like what… - Amy 

I believe that this is the first time management explicitly acknowledged to employees that they knew a union effort was happening. Then he you know kind of talks rambles a little bit about unions and management and then He goes into this like legal prepared speech about how we are managers, we are we are supervisors under the NLRB. Just to be clear, you are a supervisor and like you should have nothing to do with the Union basically was the message that we got in that meeting. - Amy 

A week later at the very next AllHands...before management announces they are aware of the union to the larger company... management builds on their original plan to take steam out of the organizing effort. Management took the concerns raised in the first meeting they had with a handful of engineers and immediately addressed them… loudly… to the entire company.  This is a tried and true union busting strategy. 

People in power when they see a threat of solidarity and organizing from the ground up will give small concessions in order to tamp down that resistance. So that was intentional. - AnonA

Management announces that they will be implementing an anonymous reporting tool immediately, something we’d been requesting for over a year at that point.  

It kind of just was a tool for them to use to kind of tamp down any criticism of them. You know, oh you don't have a way to report and deal with these issues and they could say, well, we have, you know, we have this but It didn't actually have any teeth.  - AnonA

Then the senior leadership team announces they will be creating new clearer growth paths and systems to distribute decision making power across the company.  And lastly, they give a detailed deep dive into Kickstarter financial state. This level of transparency was what staff had been asking for but... the way this information was presented to staff seemed odd to quite a few organizers.  Management seemed to be positioning this show of radical transparency as a peak behind the curtain at Kickstarter’s fragility.  This positioning was another talking point that would become useful later when management needed to make a case against the union.  Later they will point to the financial state of Kickstarter and imply that a union could put the company in financial jeopardy. A tried and true union busting tactic.

We are apparently doing well enough that we could invest a lot of money in hiring. And other things, but not so well that if that didn't work out the company would survive. Like, I don't know, like it really seemed like the... I had a hard time following the story that they were they were leaving from all hands to all hands or the talks about how well how well or how poorly, we were doing.  - John

Just a couple days later on March 1st, 2019, Kickstarter’s General Council sends an email to the lower level managers whom organizers had worked to include in the bargaining unit.  At this point leadership was aware that our union was pushing to include lower level managers and they’d found an easy way to quickly cut our bargaining unit down and slow our momentum. The email stated quote: 

“To be expressly clear, as a member of management, you are not eligible to be part of any bargaining unit, be covered by any collective bargaining agreement or engage in union organizing activity.” - General Council 

And it ended with this…

“violators will face appropriate repercussions, up to and including termination of employment.”  - General Council 

This email stating that you were a manager and that you could be fired for union activity was sent to an incredibly wide group of people, some of whom were not aware they could be considered managers and were immediately afraid for their jobs. 

It was terrifying. Right. Because I didn't want. I was, I was scared of losing the job. Like right off the bat. - AnonC

There were workers who were told they would be managers in the near future and that they were a manager even when this was not part of their job description. 

They were labeling it as like a miscommunication and like an onboarding mistake. It was strange like I kind of told them I didn't really want to be a manager, I was just expecting to be a mentor, I wasn't expecting to have a director report, you know, that wasn't in my contract, I didn't have manager access in our like employee system....  And then I had a meeting with Aziz where he just kind of like it was sort of like a check in.  He was like, I remember like There was a moment where we talked about you being a manager and that was like very understood that that was what what you were going to be doing. And it was just very direct and blatant gaslighting.   - AnonC

Some workers who pushed back against the manager label were explicit about the source of their concerns: they  needed clarity about their position so they could participate in the union. 

That was when the vibe started changing when I very vocally was like y'all gotta tell me what my role is because I want to organize. - AnonC

Did I ever tell you that I had the exact same experience? - Clarissa

You did, you did. - AnonC

Besides shrinking the union, this was also likely a tactic to chill union activity by sowing fear and confusion - and it was working. 

Because it allowed Kickstarter leadership to say, we are doing our due diligence and we're telling every manager that they cannot interfere with unionizing because we support your rights to organize and on paper. In a press release that sounds really good. And if you look, oh, if you look at, oh, they had a big meeting and they told all the managers, don't you dare interfere with the union. That sounds good, but actually If you look at what they really did which was expand that list of managers to fit their criteria of who is a manager. Right. What that means is they were able to take people who I think should have been allowed to or to organize with us and to be in our bargaining unit convince them that their managers and they'd be breaking federal law by even talking to us about the union. It was a brilliant, and very successful union busting tactic.  - Taylor

The union decided that the wanted middle managers in and management decided that they didn’t want middle managers in an since management held all the power, management won out. I think there is a world where if we had organized more of the middle managers. We could have put up more of a fight on for us to be included. But at the point that this all kind of went down. We hadn't been able to organize enough middle managers. And so any middle managers that were sort of on the fence. At that point, like really got scared off by all this legal jargon. - Amy 

If if all the like weird lower lower middle management people that Kickstarter. If all of them had been vehement about organizing if all of them and said Damn straight were in the bargaining unit, we probably could have fought that battle and won. - Taylor 

This strong message from management made it nearly impossible to organize lower level managers. The threat of losing their jobs paired with an uncertainty of what was legally allowed, cleaved these workers from the union and put the few lower level managers who had been openly supporting the union in harm’s way.  It became clear that we had to immediately separate lower level managers from the bargaining unit, the union had lost that battle. 

We had built a lot of... I'm gonna probably going to cry. Um, but, like we had just built up a lot of like Community and connection like within that group. And so to sort of like really suddenly be sort of like Like shut out Of that By management was like really hard and I remember. Sometimes, there was literally like there was like a couple of weeks where it was like unclear if it was okay to even just like get a drink with a union organizer after work like Because a lot of us like hang out afterwards. And so it's like okay if there's three non management union organizers getting a drink and I'm seeing with them. Is that going to be a problem. For me, or for the Union effort and so like sometimes have literally just sort of been paralyzed like sitting at my desk being like, I don't know if I can go get a drink with my friends right now. - Amy


Management has started to flex even before most of the company had become aware of the union drive. A month after Kickstarter’s leadership had become aware of the union and had established the foundation for an anti union strategy, on March 6th, the VP of Community Strategy sends an email to the entire company announcing management has become aware employees are organizing.  In this email, management does a couple of things that become part of their longterm union busting strategy.  First, management starts by acknowledging shortcomings. They encourage staff to share concerns with them directly and cast any worker to worker criticising of management as bad faith.  Then, management suggests that organizing complicates and compounds existing challenges. Quote: 


“We want to foster a space for open dialogue so that all employees feel supported and connected, and to keep issues from further compounding and becoming more complex.” 

Lastly, management implies that organizing is antagonistic and divisive.

“I believe that none of us want to wake up and come to work in an atmosphere that feels antagonistic.”

It is such a fucking boss thing to say… It's so disrespectful and condescending to me that they would imagine they can say something like, oh yeah, you guys like, Don't worry, like, yeah, just like, it's fine. Just come to us just human beings just like you, you know… and I’m like, no!  It's like, yeah, this is like a total exaggeration, but if I walked into a room and you know the other person in there has gone and they're like, just bear with me. And I don't have anything Like, oh my god, like I'm never gonna be fully comfortable. I'm never gonna be able to be because I'll be like, yeah, I mean like I really do want to tell you about how like That thing that you said last week really hurt my feelings or how I'm not getting paid enough. But the problem is that you haven't gotten and I'm worried that you'll shoot me with the gun. If I complain to you. Yes, it's obvious to me honestly don't remember don't feel that way about your own bosses. Like why are we pretending. Why are you pretending that like this very human very natural power dynamic thing doesn't apply to you as a manager, you know, like it just does it just does. That good faith relationship just does not exist, it doesn't it doesn't exist when one person in the room has a gun and the other person doesn’t. And to make the metaphor just crystal clear. When I say God when I'm thinking is the power that person, that person has over my livelihood, my situation, my career. The power to fire me the power to take away my health insurance, the power to make my workplace newly abusive and sad. It's horrible to be Like that is the power that they have. - Karlee

So now management is proactively shaping staff’s perception of the union effort.  The union was losing control. 

There were plenty of people at the company who had no idea organizing was happening so they were super thrown off. - RV

There were like whole teams that like everybody that was involved was like, Oh, I don't really know anyone on that team that well, you know, and it's like, how do you, how do you talk to somebody that you don't know that you've never spoken to before about, you know, this big decision.  - Alfie

We are like, Oh shit. Like, we need to figure out how we're becoming like public so that, um, we can claim this narrative a little bit and shape it.  - RV

We could feel the tension starting to build.  Usually, when management is fighting against a union drive, the workplace becomes an epic game of tug-a-war where management and workers are struggling to win over undecided workers.  And at this point in the union drive, management had the upper hand.  The union did not yet have majority support, organizers had not been able to reach every worker and make a case for unionization - this was so early in the process that organizers had not even started collecting signatures yet from folks who expressed support.  Management on the other hand, was coming from a position of strength.  They had the advantage of introducing the idea of a union to a large portion of workers who had not yet heard about the organizing effort and, because unions were so far outside of most Kickstarter worker’s personal experience, management could frame a union as something opaque, unnecessary, and detrimental.  

At the next union meeting, we decide that in two weeks time, on March 19th 2019, we would internally announce the union to the entire company.  This is a drastic acceleration of our timeline and it’s all hands on deck. Two weeks go by and we’ve created a plan and as more and more people join the effort, we’re all counting the days to the big announcement.  But then... as we gathered for a union meeting on March 18th, the night before our big announcement… our phones start lighting up.  Perry, Kickstarter CEO has sent the entire company an email at 6:22pm. He announces that he’s stepping down as CEO to focus on his role as chairman of the board and that Aziz Hasan, the head of Kickstarter’s Design & Product teams, will be stepping into the role as interim CEO.

There was a lot of stuff going on and all at once and I remember everybody being pissed because we were like, fuck you Perry.  This is our moment and now you’re making it feel like this is reactionary.  We were pissed actually, we were all angry.  We were like, of course you’re stepping down because you don’t want to get your hands dirty with a union run. - Toy

We would later learn that this is a classic union busting move. Companies will make a change in leadership to create the appearance of accountability and to make the argument that a new leadership team needs time to prove they are better. 

Historically Perry was the problem so if Perry’s gone, everything’s going to be hunky dory and fine.  - Toy  

We decide there’s nothing we can say that would not be reactionary, and this leadership shift really changed nothing.  We are still fighting for a seat at the table, now we’ll just be sitting across from someone new. So, we put our phones down and go through the details of the next day. We lock down who’s going to send the announcement email.  We finalize the subject line to make sure it states in all caps “PLEASE READ ONLY ON BREAKS” so no union activity is happening during work hours. We go over our ironclad media blackout policy and everyone reiterates their commitment to staying silent online so the union could keep the union conversation internal and speak as one united voice.  The after work gathering to celebrate this milestone and invite folks to come ask questions is buttoned up.  Organizers had decided to officially start collecting signatures on petitions at this upbeat event and were going over the game plan.

There was a lot of keeping track of those petitions.  They were numbered.  We had to check them out… like they were locked in a box in Taylor’s studio...  - Toy

Then the team writing our very first company wide address put the final touches on that email: 

We spent a lot of time trying to get the voice right We wanted to make sure that It was Respectful values driven We wanted to make sure that it had a collective voice, and it was inclusive. We thought about We thought about all the ways you know every, every sentence you write, you think about the ways that it could be misinterpreted. I knew that we wanted to write a style that was uplifting and made people feel good about participating in the unionization process. Our focus was Hey, we're doing this. I think this is true. We're doing this because we love Kickstarter.  - David

Then one of the authors starts to read the address aloud in full.  The room goes quiet. This was the first audible breath of Kickstarter United.


Kickstarter United is a group of your co-workers unionizing in order to promote our collective values: inclusion and solidarity, transparency and accountability; a seat at the table. Ten years ago, Kickstarter was brought to life. Since then, Kickstarter has radically democratized access to community-based funding — bringing more than 150,000 creative projects to life. Today, we invite you to join us and help bring that same sense of democracy to the workplace we love.


By unionizing, we will safeguard and enrich Kickstarter’s charter commitments to creativity, equity, and a positive impact on society. As employees, we joined Kickstarter because of our shared belief in these values. Kickstarter’s efforts are incomplete, and these values have failed to manifest in our workplace. We can do better together — for ourselves and our industry. This is a pivotal moment in tech. Our voices join a community of peers excited to offer a new path forward.


United, our work will help define this model for an entire industry. It begins by building a version of Kickstarter that puts our collective values into practice. 

Signed, Your Colleagues / Kickstarter United / The Inaugural Organizing Committee  - David


The room was just filled to the brim with pride and gratitude.  This was our voice. 


I loved it, I was like, this is incredible.  - Toy


We were ready for tomorrow.


Coming to hot Kickstarter united bringing the rights and solidarity.  - Trav



Next in the oral history of Kickstarter United, the union goes company wide, we’ll celebrate with organizers and get an inside look at how management turns up the heat when they officially come out as anti union. 

The PH of your daily life changes.  - Karlee

They do not want you to succeed in building a union and they will play on your emotions to do that.  That was their number one strategy at Kickstarter. - Patrick

They were playing for keeps and that they didn’t care and that they would do whatever they could to hurt us that they could. The mask was off.  It was like, oh, oh no, not only are these people going to fight us like this but, I have to work with them.  I have to smile in the office when I see these people.  - Taylor

The Kickstarter Union Oral History is brought to you by the Engelberg Center on Innovation Law and Policy at NYU Law.  It is released under a Creative Commons Attribution Share-Alike 4.0 International License.  And the music was composed by Michael Simonelli over at the podcast production company Charts and Leisure.