Engelberg Center Live!

Chapter 5: Captive Audience | Part 2

Episode Summary

Leadership officially comes out as anti union and tips the scale in their favor.

Episode Transcription

Welcome back to the oral history of Kickstarter’s union.  We’re picking back up in April 2019, just a few weeks after the union made a debut Hello World announcement to the company.  Workers are almost immediately divided after a letter opposing the union  is leaked to the press, resulting in a wave of public backlash directed at it’s three named authors. Organizers are scrambling to keep up with management’s anti union tactics which are effectively dividing workers and discouraging union activity.  Talking about the union becomes harder and harder as undecided workers are pressured from the top and organizers have been marked as troublemakers within Kickstarter.  The power of management begins to tip the scales against the union and the illusion of an even playing field between workers and management dissolves.


By mid April, management has created an aura of progress. Notable concessions made to demonstrate worker support and set the new CEO apart from the last successfully obscured the need for a union in the eyes of many undecided coworkers.  Organizers see this recent wave of improvements as the fruits of collective action while workers unaware of the pressure the union has applied to management view them as management’s good faith efforts to make Kickstarter a better place to work. 

The rebranding of leadership as approachable stewards was effectively buying time and good will with undecided staff. These trust building tactics ranged from open office hours, friendly lunches, coffees, to more subtle communication.  On April 12th 2019, staff gets an email from Kickstarter’s new CEO, Aziz Hasan, tittled, “A Culture of We.” Again, management was positioning themselves as a uniting force struggling against the divisive atmosphere of an active union drive. In this email, Aziz establishes something he calls a “culture of we.” He says, quote: 

“One thing that has been active on my mind in this last week is how we grow Kickstarter with a culture of ‘we’.  All organizations are at risk of silos and sides of the house, which is why the design of the organization and operating system are critical to mitigating this risk.  These rifts can happen between functions like Community and Product, or roles like managers and employees, and between people who hold differing opinions.  It’s one thing to hold strong opinions, it is another to allow them to divide us. The latter is detrimental to progress, our mission and your well-being and development. It makes our work towards a worthy mission, which is already incredibly difficult to achieve, that much harder. It is my job as the leader to steer us there, listen to your feedback, and keep us working together.”  

This new guard of management doubled down on a communication style that subtly emphasized a false division - that management is on the side of workers and the union organizers are not.  They had humanized themselves and the new CEO, strategically created relationships with undecided workers, encouraged and supported the small but vocal No Committee, and cultivated the image of organizers as problematic. All of this work was in service of hiding the reality, management was not one of us, this was not an even playing field. There is not one team in an office.  There are two, management and workers. And when management asks workers to stand with them and forgo a right to collective activity, they are not raising us up to their level, they are reinforcing the ceiling on worker agency. 

Spirit Week (April 23rd)

By late April, union morale is painfully low.  The character and social standing of organizers across the company had been damaged by communication from management.  Organizers start to talk about ways to rebuild trust and repair the damage. Strategy chats focused on rebuilding trust bubbles up in small conversations between organizers.  On a walk to get coffee, two organizers come up with an idea for an accelerated good will facilitation plan. Karlee called it Spirit Week. 

A week of celebration in which we would do things every day as frequently as we could to bring joy to the unionization effort so that would be things like just dope ass playlists like chili Friday like spending time with people having picnics like doggy doggy petting picnics in the park. - Karlee

Together we pitch this idea at the next union meeting and, after a vote, we hit the ground running to plan this week of joy. Organizers make a spreadsheet of small event ideas, workers volunteer to bring food or lead activities. The goal is to delight our colleagues and reverse the dehumanization of organizers coming from management. 

We're just going to change the tone of the space in the office and we're going to make sure that people see that it's union organizers doing right like.  There is no better way to get on someone's good side than to just give them free food play upbeat music and just joke around right…   - Taylor 

Even if no people who are not part of the organizing group show up. This is still going to be fun.  - Dannel 

So organizers plan fun small moments of togetherness and joy on lunch breaks and whenever we could make time in the day.  I made a huge vat of ramen in the kitchen to share one day at lunch… organizers took shifts picnicking in the park… Taylor made a big family meal...

There was a day where I said, okay, I'm going to be in the kitchen for like three hours, answering emails with one hand and I'm going to be cooking a couple of big pots chili for everybody. I make a really good chili. I mean, it's good....  I’m going to make a vegetarian one and I'm going to do a big meat one.  Everyone's gonna come to the kitchen and get chilly to the whole office and it was great. We had like 20 or 30 people down there any job is fantastic. It was great. - Taylor

This week of joyful activity and connecting with coworkers feels like a breath of fresh air for the union organizers.  But by the end of the week, there was not a wave of signatures or any measurable spike in support.  This activity and effort was not focused on that aspect of organizing. 

One of the areas where I often felt kind of not in conflict, but in disagreement with the way we were doing things was I felt that a lot of times the Union would use things like spirit week or use something like an event as an outlet for energy that they were scared to put into more one on one conversations where we got people on our side and got written commitments. - Taylor 

Even if the week didn’t end with more signatures, organizers felt the tension in the office somewhat subside and the painful feeling of being maligned by management faded a bit. The office became more socially and emotionally bearable and organizers felt more confident getting back to one on one conversations. 

I don't know necessarily like how impactful. It was in terms of like getting more signatures or like any of the really concrete work for outreach, but I know for me. That I was so happy to have those moments to come together and that camaraderie and that realness. Because we wanted to help share that sense of empowerment and joy and positive energy around the Union.  - Karlee 

Kickstarter’s 10th Birthday Party

All of this energy, and focus, and time we were pouring into mitigating growing tension and division paled in comparison to the machine management had at their fingertips.  All pro union worker activity had to be done outside of company time - during breaks, lunch, and after work - while management could marshall all of the resources of the company to support their anti union strategy.  Just a week after our joy filled bonanza of small events was Kickstarter’s 10th birthday, a milestone Kickstarter planned to celebrate externally and internally.  Management funds a huge bash to bring staff together in celebration of Kickstarter and this party effectively eclipses the unifying effect of the union’s Spirit Week. 

The biggest weapon in their arsenal is to make it look and feel as if everything is fine, right.... They want to erase all conflicts, they want to make it seem like no one has any problems and if they have any problems, those problems are small and trivial, and that you know management can handle it. So, it is always in management's interest to make to like always be boosting morale and the internal brand of the company on to people. Right, so obviously a big birthday celebration like that is a really good opportunity for management to do that. - Taylor 

On April 30th, the Kickstarter office is transformed into a beautiful, dazzling, inspiring space that embodies the values and pride of our community.  It was clear management and the teams that worked hard on this day pulled out all the stops.  

Oh god, what a wonderful day.  KSR10, do I wanna call that one of the best days of my life, yes, yes I do. - AnonB

It was a beautiful, memorable day for all of us.

I mean, it was, it was nonstop you've walked in, you were given an enamel pin our designers to our studio design studio to do these beautiful and animal pins with ASR 10 and there was balloons everywhere. People are festive. There was snacks. There were so many snacks that was empanadas at some point there was cake. There was, you know, and You know, there was dancing. There was a band music was playing all over the office, alcohol started flowing pretty early, but also like mock tales and other fun drink. People making crazy cakes their dogs walking around everywhere. Just everyone's having a wonderful time.   It was an all day party and it was exhausting. But it was so fun. - AnonB

Event after event brought workers together in a hazy blur of fun and excitement. As magnificent and jubilant as this day was, there were cracks that releveled a glimpse of management’s strategy.  This was a day for management to elevate themselves as the source of joy and togetherness and pride, not the union or union organizers.

Right... We were going to do this big AllHands all company pledge thought When I was going to host it like a game show host or telethon host and we had all these bits plan and props and stuff. I mean, you know, this is like stuff I've done in like theaters and summer camp for kids, that sort of thing really fun. And I'm supposed to get up there and host this thing. We all like give a bunch of mine to a lot of projects that were live in the platform at the time, right.  Then I think the day before.... my manager, Julie Cerick told me I wasn't allowed to do it, told me I couldn't do it....  - Taylor 

Management had identified one of the most powerful moments in the day, an activity that would be the pinnacle of celebration, and kept a union organizer from taking the stage as MC.  And this event was indeed one of the biggest opportunities to build solidarity. 

I remember we were all in the theater and just people everywhere holding a paddles. That said, yeah, and Hell Yeah, and I think Our one of our coordinators was up there and she was, she was emceeing she was doing, she was working on like tight five cracking jokes. They're all laughing having a great time. So we're just gonna, we're gonna we're gonna back them. Know board and we're just going to bring them over the edge. We're going to help a bunch of projects come to my bringing creative projects to life. And this time Kickstarter was not just gonna be a platform. It was going to be a backer who's going to be in the shoes of backer and we're going to back these projects live And he's paddle said yes. And the hell yeah. And it was it was beautiful. Confetti would like rain from the sky there are like so many like boomerang videos of just have like sort of the unrestricted joy. The truth is, like, every person who works here really, really - And I'm not going to censor myself - really gives a fuck about creative projects really gives a fuck about art and making those things real.   - AnonB

This celebration of everything Kickstarter stands for, showed employees the depth of care and enthusiasm we all had for this work and this community.  It brought people together to imagine what the future of Kickstarter could look like.  But all of this joy was somewhat bittersweet for organizers who saw management’s power.  The power to drown out and obscure the challenges of working at Kickstarter.  On this day, it became even more clear that this was not an even playing field. 

I always thought it is a tale of two kick starters, you know, is that bit the Kickstarter, the way it presents itself. The way it claims itself to be but we celebrate. Right. I think Is the, you know, and the way that it wants to be seen by the world and then like when you get to the guts of it. And when you get when you when you sort of start spending your time. In certain environments. You know, they just feel very different. And I think the forum with all the Nazis and then the Kickstarter 10 I sort of looked at as to, like, These cannot be any more different or or the depth of drip and and Kickstarter 10 I'm like these cannot be any more different. Right. The You know, for trust and safety, though the various firings and retaliations and leaving and like unceremonious leaving of various team members and Kickstarter 10 could not be any more difference Oh yeah, always punch Nazis and then being yelled at by General Counsel and Kickstarter 10 could not be more different.  - AnonB 


Voluntary Recognition Denial AllHands (May 16, 2019 )

After the birthday party, organizers continued to have one on ones with coworkers.  These conversations were usually collections of back and forth chats spanning any topic that was on the mind of the undecided coworker.  Taking lunches, coffee breaks, meeting early before work or grabbing drinks after everyone went home.  This was a marathon of answering questions and building trust.  And slowly but surely, we were rebuilding momentum. 

Organizers had been working under the assumption that at a certain point, when we reached a super majority of support, well above the simple majority required, we could ask for voluntary recognition from management. Organizers would eventually be able to present management with the signatures of a majority of our coworkers and, after third party verification of these signatures of support, management would agree to treat the collective as a union instead of being forced to recognize the union by the National Labor Relations Board.  Voluntary recognition from Kickstarter’s leadership would allow organizers to work directly with management and have more control over the process.  It would also allow the brand of Kickstarter to recover from press about management’s anti union stance.  This path could give Kickstarter a redemption story we could all be proud of.  

For voluntary recognition, it would have saved face for the company.  We thought it would have been the best look for Kickstarter.  - Toy

Organizers had been sharing this perspective and strategy in our one on ones with people who were curious about our options or had concerns about what management was officially calling an “inherently adversarial” process.  The office had become a tense game of tug of war as management became more and more vocally, actively anti union. Voluntary recognition could have turned this struggle into a more cooperative process. 

It would have protected the entire company from the battle that we had.  It was a battle.  Like we were at war, it felt like sometimes.  And it wasn’t by our creation.  It was by disinformation and things that upper management would say around what was actually going on.  - Toy

Once outreach started to pick up and organizers were openly discussing what a union could look like with a wider, larger circle of workers, management started to ramp up union specific meetings for everyone in the company.  They were presented as open forums for senior leadership to provide clarity but largely consisted of classic anti union concepts and rhetoric that we had heard in our inoculation training.  On May 16th, almost two months after the union’s debut, management calls staff together for another union focused AllHands. 

Yeah, that meeting was wild… So everybody was there, like it was a lot of people there. - Toy 

This is what organizers call a Captive Audience meeting.  Management makes it clear that they expect staff to attend and then they deliver a carefully crafted presentation or talk about why a union is bad for the company.  The head of outreach used the word mandatory when inviting our team to this gathering. This was going to be another major moment in the union drive and tensions were high.  The next few minutes would change the course of the union drive and set leadership’s anti union stance in stone.  Kickstarter’s new CEO, flanked by senior leadership, starts to read carefully from a prepared statement. 

The weeks leading up to Kickstarter 10 and the week of I think were a great indication of where we can be. That week for everyone here, for myself personally, felt very exhilarating.  But even with that feeling of progress, I think there are many issues that are unresolved.  Over the last few months there’s been some discussion of a union as a potential solution to some of these challenges we’re facing at Kickstarter.  During that time [names of senior leadership removed] seen that information that has been shared, we’ve kinda done our own research, we’ve discussed what that may look like at length.  Um, and we’ve allowed for a little bit of discussion just amongst everyone here in sort of their own right to understand it.  There’s a lot to understand about that process so I just encourage anyone here to do the research that you want to do.  Our research has taken us a number of experts and individuals on many sides of the issues.  We’ve talked to labor lawyers and union experts.  Um, also talked to a number of people at progressive companies.  Brought in a neutral arbitrator to try to help and provide some education.  - Kickstarter CEO 

Then, this prepared statement makes a sharp anti union turn.  Management cycles through several classic anti union ideas in rapid fire.  Organizers who had gone through inoculation training recognized some classic anti union rhetoric.  We heard the positioning of a union as adversarial, we heard management suggest that the union would make the company less competitive, that it would create roadblocks making it harder for management to improve our working conditions, and finally, the CEO very clearly states that management thinks a union will be detrimental to Kickstarter.

Um, you know, I think, we were advised that employees and managers, some would leave.  Work operations would become a little less agile.  Relationships between teammates may become adversarial.  And some issues are definitely able to be addressed with a collective bargaining agreement, uh, but not all.  Having gone through that process of reflection, coming to understand what it would mean for our ability to meet our current challenges as a business, to best serve our mission and do right by all the people we have an obligation to serve, including the people in this room, we believe that we’re better set up to be successful without the framework that a union provides.  I know this is a position that is disappointing to many of you. There were a lot of valid concerns that have been raised.  I know that we’re all working hard to address these things and looking for a way to codify what works best for us.  Also this is a conversation that’s not taking place in a vacuum.  We’ve seen a lot of worker activism recently.  It’s particularly hard in this environment, as we’re trying to figure out and I think you’re trying to navigate your personal identity, public opinion, and what’s best for Kickstarter… it’s just really hard… I find that challenging.  But at the end of the day, I have to do what I believe is right for the organization as a whole, for our future, and in the pursuit of our mission. - Aziz Hasan, Kickstarter CEO

Kickstarter’s management had stated what we already knew, leadership does not think Kickstarter should be unionized and they plan to move their anti union stance out of the shadows and into the light.  This is a common moment in most union drives when management openly states that a union would be detrimental to the company.  Kickstarter’s leadership was using the power of a captive audience meeting, the power of their authority within the company, to persuade workers not to join the organizing effort.  Without looking up from his laptop, Kickstarter’s new CEO continues to flesh out the company’s official anti union stance, reading from a script.  What organizers hear next is a concise, meticulously worded list of almost every anti union talking point in the anti union playbook. He reminds us of the improvements management has made since the union drive began.  He suggests a union would reduce an individual’s power to make change and advocate for themselves directly with management.  He states that the union would cost the company time, money, and energy that would put Kickstarter and our jobs in jeopardy.  He again asserts that unions are inherently adversarial.  He suggests the union will create burdensome complexity in an already stressed operational system.  It was a litany of classic union busting concepts.  Here’s what we heard that day sitting in the theater of Kickstarter: 

Uh, there are two major areas of concern that sort of surface.  One is just how this might impact the working relationship amongst all of us.  Uh, and the second would be our present ability to achieve the short term and long term goals that we have.  Uh, fundamentally, and I think we all agree that we want this to be a great place to work for everyone who joins us now and in the future.  To continue to improve on our internal processes, transparency on issues, like diversity, promotions, compensation, terminations.  This is made possible, I think, by our ability to collaborate directly with each other.  By the flexibility that we have to respond to these situations.  And the needs of the individuals here and the realities of all this.  Um, a collective bargaining agreement would significantly change the way that we operate and work together.  The bargaining process will definitely shift our focus to negotiate it… um… in good faith.  And the CBA will lock in a particular relationship structure that may be adversarial.  It’s not where I want our focus to be in the future.  Not the way I want to be tackling issues with all of you here.  With a CBA in place, we may lose our ability to move quickly or be responsive to situational needs or for individuals.  It also may prevent us from collaborating directly with each other on internal issues and sets up a bit of a confrontational dynamic.  It’s critical that I think we are all working as one team.  With regards to how I feel that we may not be able to achieve our short term and long term goals.  Throughout this year, we’ve tried to be as transparent as we can with the financials, long term challenges we’re facing as a business, the investment’s we’re seeking to make. We’ll likely need to try to grow revenue by 25% next year or we’re going to have to start to think about how to be more savvy about that and how to sustain the business.  I truly believe that with the energy I’ve seen in the last couple months that we’re capable of doing this if we’re able to come together and stay focused.  That in addition to the cost and complexity in trying to figure out how to work through a collective bargaining agreement makes an uphill battle even steeper.  In our research we’ve found that negotiating a collective bargaining agreement can take months of time and focus away from the employees here and the leadership group.  And typically requires implementation costs that are just part of how you would engage in something like this.  We think that that time and that energy could be focused on continuing to improve the service and investing in our people without requiring this type of a process.  And during this period I think it’s worth thinking about where you’d like to direct the time, money, and energy of the company.  - Aziz Hasan, Kickstarter CEO 

In just a few minutes, Kickstarter’s CEO had cycled through half a dozen of the most common union busting talking points.  All of the union organizers had seen these come up in inoculation training but hearing them within the walls of Kickstarter was still jarring. 

I want to give some context on what comes next.  As leadership, this is not our process to own and we can’t say fully what would happen.  The eligible employees here ultimately decide whether this is something they would like to pursue.  Uh, from our end, we just wanted to provide transparency and clarity on the information where we can. Just be direct and open and honest.  So in that spirit, um, we just want to acknowledge that, um, we would not voluntarily recognize if asked to do so.    - Aziz Hasan, Kickstarter CEO 

This last statement from the CEO made it clear that this would not be a collaborative process. Preemptively denying voluntary recognition was part of a larger strategy to force organizers into the path that was most advantageous for management’s anti union stance. 

Voluntary recognition. I remember at this point that was still something that we really, really wanted and hopefully we're and we're optimistic that we might be able to get Yeah. And then of course they slam that door right in our face very quickly.  - Trav

This was a clever show of force.  Kickstarter would make sure union organizers had only one path forward.  That was not the collaborative path we’d been encouraging in our outreach conversations.  The only path remaining was a formal election overseen by the National Labor Relations Board.   Management tried to position the NLRB election process as the more democratic and fair path for a union.  But actually, it’s the path that’s more highly regulated by the NLRB, it’s more adversarial, more expensive, more time consuming, and more damaging to the brand. If the union did survive management’s anti union campaign, make it to an NLRB election, and win, then the government would force Kickstarter to recognize a union that they had fought to dismantle. This process of involuntary recognition puts management firmly in an anti union stance.  The way they put it went something like this: 

I'm paraphrasing, obviously… You know, we think that it's fair to put this to a vote. So you know if it got to that point where people wanted to have a vote of course we'd support that going through the NLRB election process. But we don't think it's fair to, you know, have this outside group come in. And like, you know, have people be forced to pay dues for something that they didn't even vote for.  - Partick 

Management was positioning the NLRB Election as the only democratic, fair option. The reason this is so deceptive is that Voluntary Recognition is also a democratic voting process.  Signing a card is essentially voting for the union.  Workers could even ask for the card back if they changed their minds before the union approached management for recognition.  The idea that union organizers had the ability to put more pressure on workers than management to vote one way or another was at the heart of this deceptive position from management. Then the CEO seals this stance with another misleading statement to the entire company.  

Organizing efforts here have been complicated a little bit that supervisors have been involved in the organizing process itself and may have solicited union support or authorization cards.  This isn’t something that’s allowed under the labor law.  One of the reasons is that it creates a risk for employees feeling obligated or pressured by their managers to support the effort.  It’s critical that we protect the eligible employees and their rights to their opinion. Given that it’s an unusual situation and there’s such a diverse range of perspectives across many of you here on whether a union is right for Kickstarter, we thought that an election overseen by the NLRB where employees may register your vote in private will be the most fair, transparent, and democratic process for everyone.  We want to make sure that the voice of everyone who is governed by this decision is able to be heard.    - Aziz Hasan, Kickstarter CEO 

This was management’s strongest argument for denying voluntary recognition and they would continue to use it for the rest of the campaign.  But Aziz left out a key piece of context that he was undoubtedly aware of.  The supervisors that were involved in the earliest days of the union did not have the key responsibilities that the National Labor Relations Act describes as definitive of a supervisor.  What many workers hearing this rhetoric didn’t know was that the entire union, from the beginning, had been fighting to include these lower level managers in the bargaining unit because their roles were much closer to those of workers than managers under NLRA rules.   Management aggressively intimidated this group of potential union members out of participating.  And to represent this situation as management protecting employees from harmful managers who were bullying them into signing a union card was adding insult to injury. 


Then... they opened the floor to questions from staff.

No matter your perspective, we’re expecting the conversation to be respectful, collaborative, and not adversarial in nature.  In that spirit, we’ll open it up for discussion… we didn’t want this to be a one way thing.  - Aziz Hasan, Kickstarter CEO 

There were two mics set up on either end of the small stage and there was always a channel for submitting questions remotely. We were never given an anonymous tool to submit questions even though it had been requested.  So pro union questions had to be asked by identifiable individuals, chilling participation and allowing management to keep track of who was asking challenging questions. 

A union organizer got up to the mic and asked leadership how an anti union stance supported stated company values.  For years Kickstarter had positioned converting to a Public Benefit Corporation as a legal framework that holds the company accountable to the community, to stated values, and to the mission. As a union organizer, he stands in front of senior leadership and states that a union contract similarly enshrines the company's values and working conditions in a legal framework. Then he asks how leadership reconciles the contradiction of how Kickstarter embraces the legal framework of a Public Benefit Corporation while avoiding the legal framework of a union.  Aziz responds:

It’s challenging for sure.  I agree in the notion of finding a way to have things kinda well structured and captured.  What we understand today, the framework of a union what it provides, how it’s structured… it doesn’t feel that it applies to all of the issues and concerns that we’re aware of. I think it takes a portion of that and does a really good job with those things.  But I don’t think it captures the full spectrum of things that we’d want to do. - Aziz Hasan, Kickstarter CEO 

Of course, converting to a Public Benefit corporation is different than becoming a union shop.  The key difference is that the PBC status of Kickstarter does not change the power structure.  It does not give workers any defensible rights or significant influence.  That is what management was pushing back against.  By refusing to give a meaningful answer to this question, management was tipping their hand. By fighting the union, Kickstarter was fighting its own ethos. 

The idea that we would incorporate as a PBC as a company by idea that we would unionize. I think to me. Those are very similar ideas. Those are two legal structures that benefit. I think I think benefit companies benefit employees and benefit our customers or the community of a website or the company.  - David

For Kickstarter to NOT voluntarily recognize Kickstarter United, it was essentially shunning all of these progressive values that they claimed to have.  - Toy

Then someone who worked closely with management stepped up to the mic.  This was a person who was new to the company and not eligible to join the union because they worked so closely with management.  They get up to the mic and suggest that workers keep in mind that a union contract is, as they put it, between three parties, and that union members will be obligated to include things in this contract, at the behest of OPEIU, that do not align with Kickstarter’s missions and values - that working with a third party organization, a national, brings an agenda into the mix that will not always align with Kickstarter’s mission.  

Yeah, so they would always try to spin it, like, the Union is not you, the Union is this outside group. There are people like sort of infiltrators at your company who are doing secret things that you can't be a part of.  - Patrick

This is another common anti union talking point that organizers were prepared to hear.  Immediately after this comment, Taylor takes the mic to respond directly to the suggestion that the union was made up of outsiders with agendas and asks his own follow up question to the CEO...

Hey this is Taylor from the Outreach Team.  Just to clarify that last point, the union will not tell us what to bargain for.  That would be completely our decision, the employees.  The union is really just a lawyer coop so we have legal representation.  My question to you Aziz is, two parts.  One is, having not seen anything from a collective bargaining agreement, how can you be sure it would be bad for the company. And two, what of the concerns of the union so far do you think would be the worst for the company to address?  - Taylor   

I think looking at the… I don’t think that there is necessarily… issues to address that are in harm of the company, per se. I think this solution of this tool is not the tool to solve the problem.   - Aziz Hasan, Kickstarter CEO 

Management had stated that a union was not the right tool to address the challenges we faced.  That it would keep Kickstarter from staying nimble, or agile, or flexible.  Even beyond staying externally competitive, leadership was arguing that a collective bargaining agreement would keep management from being responsive to staff’s needs and worker requests.   This was another classic anti union talking point organizers were expecting to hear.  RV got to the mic to ask for clarification on how collective bargaining would be bad for workers.

This is RV from Trust and Safety.  One challenge you mentioned was that a collective bargaining agreement would keep us from being able to respond nimbly to situations as they arose.  When I think about nimble or responsive decisions I’ve seen in my time at Kickstarter, have been ones where the majority of stakeholders have been left out of the decision.  For instance, the way that the changes to Drip were introduced or the way changes to our vacation policy were introduced.  I would love to hear from you some specific examples of things that you would see the collective bargaining agreement restricting us from being able to respond to.  - RV

I would say that it’s more just the natural process that comes with it is where the concern is. Not that particular issues here and there are the issue.  It would just be more that the structure that you’re operating within has a natural pathway.  I think it’s just foundationally the structure.  So ya, anything to do with, um, benefits or compensation, things like that.  I think all of these things, basically anything that ends up in that agreement, requires additional pathways to… is the concern there the speed in which decisions have been made…   - Aziz Hasan, Kickstarter CEO 

So my understanding is that the collective bargaining agreement helps ensure that we get to be at the table when those changes are made.   Instead of decisions being handed down that radically impact our day to day. And I think there are models of collective bargaining agreements that allow for employee voice throughout the process so it wouldn’t be waiting until we’re negotiating another contract that would allow things to still be nimble and responsive.  For right now it doesn’t seem like there are ways that we have a say in those decisions as they happen.  - RV

RV was exactly right.  Unions do have structures that allow for changes and adjustments outside of the contract.  In addition to negotiating a contract with management that safeguards worker rights, often unions will create a supporting group that allows workers and management to negotiate and collaborate responsively in between contracts.  This is sometimes called a labor management group or worker council.  It’s in management’s best interest for workers to think that, by having our working conditions protected by a contract, these conditions are set in stone, which is not the case.  The union is the workers, and they can work with management to be as flexible as they want, as long as it is fair, equitable, and most importantly - what the workers want. At this point the VP of Engineering takes the mic to repeat a union busting trope that is often referred to as an argument for a direct line.  This is the argument that an individual will no longer be able to come directly to management to negotiate their individual working conditions. 

As Aziz said, there become pathways, and those pathways have a structure to them. The things that come to mind are like, when people are like, I’m interested in going remote, I’m interested in working from home for an extended period of time, I would like to take a leave of a certain length of absence… Those are things that we can be responsive to on an individual case by case basis that under a union, there’s just a, again, without making promises, it’s different.  - Kickstarter VP of Engineering 

This is another specious argument that ignores the basic fact that workers have far less power to advocate for better working conditions when we go to management directly, as individuals.  At this point, I stood up to ask my own question.  

I think that a lot of really exciting things have happened over the past few months, and they seem very much related to collective action. Management responding to hearing that people are coming together.  How do workers, in even the tech industry in general, protect things that are exciting and meaningful to their work without collective action? - Clarissa 

Ironically, the CEO responds by making a case for a union while making a case against a union.  

We have to design the organization that way.  And to me, the whole point of the Essences operating system is to start to move a lot of the decision making down at the team level and at the team leads level.  Rather than having a governing group of leaders that make all the decisions.  It’s fundamentally the promises of that system.   - Aziz Hasan, Kickstarter CEO 

After suggesting that Essences, a management mandated operating structure, was a better tool to give workers power than a union, he makes the case for more time to demonstrate the efficacy of this system.

We’ve maybe developed a third of it ,half of it at best today.  A lot more there that remains to be completed.  - Aziz Hasan, Kickstarter CEO 

To follow up on that point.  The idea of pushing stuff like this down to people at the ground level.  There are going to be things that individual teams will absolutely not get to decide.  So it still remains that there will be no representation of those kinds of issues.  Where is that represented in the operating system? - Kilian

Aziz responds to this question with another vague non answer.  Because the truth is, no matter how the company is structured, unless it is completely restructured as a coop or unionized, employees will always be at the whims of management. Then… Taylor takes the mic and brings all of this high level hypothetical back and forth into focus with a nod to Kickstarter’s recent past. 

I just want to say, I share your optimism and excitement for the future.  Like, I’ve been here, I think my six year anniversary is next month.  And I, like I get excited to come to work today. Like the creator dev team the backer dev team have gotten me excited about looking at email which is insane. Like I love it, I think our future is bigger than our past.  I feel it more than ever before - except for one time, Spring 2017.  Felt the same way.  And I really believe in a lot of the systems that we’re building now and a lot of the processes and like god the staff is incredibly strong.  Can you guarantee that Perry will not come back and do it all again.  - Taylor 

There’s a long pause as this question resonates in the theater. 

RECORDING muffled laughs and soft reactions. 

And then… the theater erupts in applause. 

RECORDING ovation 

And Aziz’s answer is… really telling.  

I don’t see that being something that he would prefer to do if he didn’t have to do it.  If everything was operating well.  So my mind is squarely around that and how we operate in that respect.  For me this place is the closest it gets outside of starting my own thing so I’m not I have no desire to go anywhere.  - Aziz Hasan, Kickstarter CEO 

It was not Aziz’s decision whether he stays or goes.  It is the board’s.  And Perry, Kickstarter’s former CEO, was Chairman of the Board.  Aziz could never guarantee that any commitments he might make would survive under the next CEO or even survive within his one tenure.  Fighting the union meant fighting to retain the power to break any and all promises made to staff.  

A few more workers step up to the mic to ask questions and then… the topic of management rights came up.  In union outreach chats, staff had been talking about how a union would give workers power to influence large decisions that affect the company like management’s dismantling of one of our most promising products, Drip, or leadership taking down a culturally significant project, like Always Punch Nazis. The right to challenge these types of decisions are not always protected with a union contract.  When workers negotiate contracts outlining their rights in the workplace, control over these types of decisions can be reserved for management under the title “management rights.”   First VP of engineering brought up management rights to dismantle the idea that workers could challenge management on strategic decisions.  Then Kickstarter’s General Council steps up to the mic to further explain why a union, because of management rights, would not allow workers to have a seat at the table for big product decisions.  

Our experience, our knowledge, and we’ve spoken to a number of people has been normally there’s a strong management rights provision that grants the oversight of the company to the management team.  - Kickstarter General Council 

Union contracts have limitless possibility. If workers are organized and willing to fight for a right, even the right to challenge management on issues that would traditionally fall under “management rights,” you can.  Later, our organizers from OPEIU told us that good union contracts will have very short and narrow management rights clauses, while not-so-good contracts will have expansive management rights language.  It all depends on how effective workers are at fighting for influence over this aspect of business operations.  But this context was left out of management’s explanation.  Kilian, another union organizer, takes the mic to challenge management’s attempt to limit staff’s imagination.  

Followup on that.  I’m curious about the idea of precedence.  I think if you had asked people when Kickstarter was founded is there a precedent for a company to enshrine its, and I go back to my earlier point, its values on a contractual level, I think there wouldn’t have been much precedent for that.  The idea of, you know we were a B corp before we were a PBC because that wasn’t even a real thing when we wanted to do it. - Kilian 

Beyond spearheading a collective bargaining agreement that could give workers the power to influence major business decisions, there’s a very simple way that a contract would give workers more power to take part in challenging decisions traditionally reserved for management.  A contract could protect a worker from being fired for speaking up.  A contract holds the employer to fair due process that would keep management from doing what they had in the Always Punch Nazis event and firing the whistleblower.   

Throughout this dialogue between mainly union organizers and management, leadership made several attempts to support their argument that a union makes it harder for staff to communicate openly, the processes are burdensome, and this system simply does not belong in a modern tech company environment. And they were fairly vocal about their frustration in being limited by the rules. 

There’s a framework for this, there are rules for this, we spent a lot of time over the last few months learning all the rules.  There are limits in what we can say.  To make a fair and equitable process as given by the rules of the NLRB. - Kickstarter General Council 

Ya, I feel like, just… dancing around all these things… like… it’s very challenging… for anybody who’s worked with me, like, my approach has always been, let’s just sit down, let’s have a conversation, let’s figure out what happens next.  The last 8 weeks have been very… stuck.  - Kickstarter CEO

I’ve been a lawyer for twenty years.  I will tell you this stuff is a very unique area of the law.  We’ve hired some experts, we’ve talked to different folks.  And that’s what we’re trying to do here.  We’re trying to conduct ourselves within the bounds of the NLRA.  We are trying to enable dialogue amongst the employees.  Um, this has required a fair amount of effort and we’ve tried to be as mindful and thoughtful about doing this as possible.  Um, there are other approaches to doing this, uh but they do not feel like Kickstarter.  - Kickstarter General Council 

As the meeting starts to wrap up, you could feel the exhaustion in the room.  Just before the meeting ends, something astonishing happened.  Something that would floor organizers...  In the final moments of this meeting, a new senior manager steps up to the mic, my manager actually.  They take the stage and… instead of posing a final question to leadership, they take this opportunity to praise the management team.

I just want to take a minute to acknowledge the work that’s been put into doing the homework on everybody’s part.  Coming from a company that just six months ago actually just went through a union, and I actually sat at the bargaining table for a year and a half.  Um, oftentimes management doesn’t do their homework.  And it’s really really nice to see that you guys facilitated this open dialogue.  And are not just coming in with a firm stance and you know putting your foot down one way or the other.  - Kickstarter Head of Community

I vividly remember that.  - Alex

This manager came from Thrillist where, according to the Thrillist union organizers, management had fought the union hard and actually drove workers to strike during the contract negotiation process when they refused to agree to basic worker rights like minimum livable wage

This is one of those moments where is the rewind noise, you know, because wait, wait, wait, are you expecting me to believe that you are claiming to be in support of any of the work that we're doing here?  - Trav

And then Travis, in an incredibly swift and beautiful moment, get’s and says, hey just a quick clarifying question… - Alex 

Would you mind clarifying which side of the bargaining table, you were on when you speak to this experience of having unionized before and she just so clearly says, oh, you know, I was on the side of management. -Trav

Would you mind clarifying which side of the table you were on? The proverbial table, were you bargaining with… ya we’ll share a mic... - Trav

… I was on the management side.  - Kickstarter Head of Community 

And she begrudgingly admitted that she wasn't back part of the management that she has just described as on transparent and unhelpful and uninformative.  - Alex

I think it’s just a really interesting process to go through.  And I think that, the more homework that management does on the front end of it makes it better.  I can say that the experience that I personally went through, I can say that that was not the case.  And that made it a harder process for everybody involved, so. - Kickstarter Head of Community 

Um… thank you. - Kickstarter CEO

You're on the company side defending the company. So of course you're going to take that position just felt like you lost like a whole like step of trust with this individual in leadership.  - Corey

What gives you the right to stand up here and be so self congratulatory to a team working against all of us, you're talking to.  Your experience has does not equate to mine, like in you saying oh I just want really want to recognize that they're doing such a great job is you giving yourself a pat on the back to stay in the good graces of these people who are in ultimate power and trying to pass that off as being like You know, I've been through it before you all you know unions are hard, and like, here we are, like, who do you think that you're fooling he almost got away with it, and I'm like, these are the moment. These are the moments where I started really thinking like Wow, you know, this, this, there's so much concerted effort and retaining the image that they're not union busting and it's also transparent to me. And it's so sad to see a company, you have this much respect for just fall into these super hackneyed practices.  - Trav

By the next AllHands, this manager would be elevated to Senior Leadership and sit on stage with the most powerful people at the company. 


In part three of Captive Audience, union organizers grapple with this new era of Kickstarter’s anti union strategy.  Management has officially stated that they believe a union is not right for Kickstarter and that they believe that it will be detrimental to Kickstarter’s future.  For the next few months, organizers trudge through a flood of misinformation and pressure from senior leadership... and new signatures slow to a crawl.  

It was like, every day I would wake up and and you know in the middle of the night and think we're too far behind, or that email that we sent yesterday. Was not effective enough or management got the jump on calm for this particular week. So this week. They're winning. I mean it was just a revolving door of anxieties and successes and wins and questions and fears.  Things just started happening so quickly and I felt like I was running from fire to fire. - Trav

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.