Engelberg Center Live!

Chapter 8: The Vote

Episode Summary

Kickstarter workers cast votes on unionization.

Episode Transcription

Episode 8 | The Vote 

Welcome back to the oral history of Kickstarter’s union.  Everything that took place in the last episode, the firings, the protests, the press, management’s disinformation campaign, and the union’s visible request for Voluntary Recognition… all of this was packed into just a few weeks. By October 2nd 2019, about a year after the union drive began with a small handful of workers, the majority of staff supported the union and stood with organizers to demand Kickstarter’s management voluntarily recognize the union.  As expected, management refused.  This was exactly the tactic organizers were waiting for.  It was time to turn up the heat. 


The moment Kickstarter’s management officially refused to voluntarily recognize the union, organizers decided to leverage the growing public support and pressure management to reconsider.  Up until this point, Kickstarter United had not asked for help from the public.  Taylor and I had been sharing our stories as free agents on Twitter, talking to journalists nonstop, and the supportive creator community had been relatively self organized with no official guidance from the union as a whole.  For the entire drive, organizers had kept a strict public comms blackout to focus all attention inward and build the union’s base… up to the day management refused to recognize the majority of workers as a union.  For almost a year, organizers had been focused on building a strong base of support and learning what fellow workers wanted to see from collective action.  Public pressure was seen as a last resort, an unpredictable tool, and a potentially detrimental distraction.  This was the moment the collective decided that public pressure was necessary to build the power workers needed as they pushed for recognition. Organizers knew the community was just waiting for a signal. 

I emailed, I sent it out cause I didn't actually know Oriana does politics or status work during this. So I sent her an angry email because she was our liaison and helped us. And I was like, excuse me, we are a left living magazine. And for your company to be engaged in union busting practices, it's hardly our campaign. We are not going to put up with this. I want to speak to someone about that. And she called me and we had a chat and she was like, I know I I'm union. And it was cool. Oh, what do we do to help you? What do we do to help you? I was like, you know, what, how do we, how do we, uh, how do we help pressure them? … - Nathan 


If organizers wanted to use public pressure to encourage management to recognize the union, they would need to do it fast.  Holding public attention is hard and Kickstarter’s leadership had recently hired the Brunswick Group, a PR firm specializing in crisis level damage control which, a decade earlier, built BP Oil’s press campaign to counter public outrage over the massive oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico.  So, the union quickly puts together a toolkit for creators and backers who support unionization.  Once they release this kit of graphics, copy, and suggestions for showing support, the community runs with it.  Creators are leaving messages all over Kickstarter, in the comments, in project pages, putting graphics on their project images calling for management to recognize the union.  Kickstarter alumni write an open letter calling for management to recognize the union.  The hashtag #RecognizeKickstarterUnited takes off and every day the community peppers Kickstarter’s twitter account with tweets for management to recognize the union.  

We were causing them trouble. They had, they had creators writing in every day and like creators who made them millions of dollars writing in and being like, recognize your fucking union. Um, and there, and, um, and especially in a moment where like, game creators are a huge source of revenue for the platform and are also going through their own moment of trying to unionize in their sector. And they're seeing this company that they rely on to bring creative projects to life do intensive union busting activity. Um, and we're like, they were ready to strike on our behalf. Um, we were like, we as a union call, like we're not calling for creator strikes or anything. Um, but I think Kickstarter like saw it flash before their eyes and they were like, fuck, like, how do we get the union to up and stop causing us this trouble in the media? And that was enough. That was worth enough. - RV

Managing all of this external activity wasn’t easy.  More than a few times, organizers had to do a bit of community maintenance, reminding supporters that they were not encouraging a boycott and putting out fires when the odd supporter lashed out at individuals instead of management, thinking they were helping the effort.  While a team of organizers was charged with maintaining pressure externally, another working group was putting together a plan to bring attention to the voluntary recognition denial within the walls of Kickstarter... with a worker protest.   

AllHands Protest

At the first All Hands since the voluntary recognition denial tensions were high.  Workers started to fill the seats of Kickstarter’s theater, organizers pointedly sat in the front row, as close as they could get to the members of Senior Leadership who would be presenting that day. RV, a member of the organizing committee, looks down the row of organizers and starts to pass materials to workers who’d volunteered to take part in the protest.  The coworkers sitting in the rows behind them see small flashes of bright neon paper.  The union had printed out small 8.5 by 11 signs reading Recognize Kickstarter United in bold lettering, which they planned to show to management when senior leaders stood up to speak.  

To try and create visible discomfort for them around what they were doing. - RV

This would be a quiet but forceful protest.  Organizers’ hearts started to beat faster and faster. Then… the lights dimmed, the theater doors closed, and the meeting began. 

Oh boy. Here we go.  - AnonB

Every time a member of senior leadership stepped up to the lectern, they were forced to present while a dozen organizers sat quietly holding small paper signs just in front of their chests, almost resting in their laps.  Then, when non-managers stepped up to present, the group would set the signs face down.  To the rest of the company sitting behind them, it was hard to see what was happening, but word started to spread across the packed theater.  One lower level manager who had been vocally anti-union leaned forward, saw the signs, and loudly left the theater letting the door slam behind him.  

I kept on facing forward, I didn’t look back.  - Camilla 

After about 45 minutes of presentations from management, the floor opened up for questions, and suddenly all the heat and discomfort that had been focused on Kickstarter’s Senior Operating Team, SOT, shifted to the organizers holding signs in the front row.  

There was a colleague who was like, I'm really upset about these signs. Like I came here to try and ask questions and understand what was happening and y'all are up here with these signs that are clearly like distracting and antagonizing. - RV

And SOT knows what’s best and like I feel so bad for SOT… it was just, it was like, you feel bad for SOT, why don’t you feel bad for us?  You know like we’re holding signs because we literally we don’t have as much power as SOT.  We wouldn’t be holding signs if like they didn't have the power to just fire us immediately for no damn reason.  - Camilla

He felt that it had taken away from the entire meaning of the all hands meeting and distracted him from the important things at hand when again to me, this was the most important thing at hand. The tension around what was going to happen with the unionizing efforts were overwhelming every aspect of my professional and probably personal life at that time. - Oriana

It was a very distressing experience. I remember my co workers crying next to me and like kind of being shocked that someone would be so out and out rude and vicious.  - John

Kickstarter’s senior leadership team quickly capitalized on this moment of tension between workers. The General Counsel, the same person who’d refused to take the voluntary recognition request letter a few days earlier, took the mic. 

I think [Kickstarter’s General Counsel] said something about how it has. It's taking us so much time and resources for us to to fight this, you know, we'd rather be working on other stuff. And I said, Well, you know, you could voluntarily recognize the Union, and this would all go away.  - Brian

Another anti union worker who, in an earlier AllHands had suggested OPEIU was a third party with ulterior motives, this employee who was not eligible to join the bargaining unit stood up to admonish the union. 

It was like, it was just anytime, something like that happened, it was like, wow, you really don't get it do you.  We're not the problem here.  - RV

Then… one of the most vocal anti union coworkers offers an idea. He stands up, takes the mic, and says he wants a space for employees to share their stories, not in one on ones outside the walls of Kickstarter, but as a whole group... at the office.  He wants an open forum to talk about the issues.  

In my head, I, again went, are you fucking kidding me? Like, what do you think these one on ones have been where we're trying to reach out to you and talk to you about the issues.  - RV

Kickstarter’s CEO agrees and states that an open forum would be supported by management.  Organizers are shocked, an open forum to encourage workers to share their most personal and painful challenges at Kickstarter would discourage participation from pro union workers, especially the most vulnerable. Heightened anti union sentiment from a vocal minority paired with management’s visible irritation was making it even harder for workers to stand with the union.  Organizers sitting in Kickstarter’s theater for this meeting felt a growing sense of anxiety and panic.  

After this AllHands, the office was awash in direct and pointed animosity toward union organizers.  As workers walked back to their desks, one of the members of the organizing committee was approached by an anti union coworker who unknowingly illustrated how casual this anti union antagonism had become.  This coworker brought up an accusation made at the AllHands by someone who was on track to become management.  The AllHands comment was about how this soon-to-be-manager felt union organizers were pretending to go out to friendly coffees but were only interested in getting a yes vote.

That upset me just to hear in general.  And then after the meeting. I was talking to a coworker and a friend of mine who was, you know, not feeling super enthusiastic about the Union, and they came to me in this like way that was Like they like was a joke. They were like, hahaha when I heard that bait and switch comment I immediately thought of you, you know, and It really hurt my feelings, because you know I didn't perceive myself as like trying to trick anybody and I Also, feel like friendship is like a really two way street. It was just really startling to me. - Karlee

Kate, from OPEIU, like she warned us this would happen.  And this happens everywhere.  People who were once friendly are now at odds with each other.  And that is not by accident because upper management plays us against each other.  Across all these companies, the reason why this shit happens is because SoT takes a stance against the union.  - Camilla

Now organizer attention is focused on preparing for this open forum that would likely have the same demoralizing effect as the AllHands.  This event was going to be a new challenge that no one had expected and threatened to sway people still on the fence.  But organizers continue the work of building trust, attempting to mend these rifts between coworkers. Even with the most vocal anti union workers... even with workers who worked closely with management to undermine the union, because these were still workers who might one day be part of the union.  Before the day was over, Camilla reached out to the colleague who kicked off the anti union criticism at AllHands. The same person who had been frustrated by union outreach.

I reached out to him after that because I had been one of the people to do outreach with him.  And I was like, I am so sorry if I made you feel that way.  That was really not what I was trying to do and… we cannot rob people of their feelings.  They’re valid, you have to respect people’s feelings about these kinds of things.  - Camilla 


Neutrality Agreement (late october)

While organizers scramble to shape the format of this new open forum promoted by management, a small working group starts to coordinate with OPEIU to carry out one more tactic that would take advantage of public pressure.  It was clear management was not going to budge on voluntary recognition.  Although the union kept up an outward facing strategy of pressuring management to recognize the union, internally, organizers were preparing for an election overseen by the National Labor Relations Board, the NLRB. An NLRB election is the more regulated path to recognition for situations where management refuses to simply recognize the union voluntarily.  NLRB elections are usually full of opportunities for management to pressure employees to vote no.  The more time management has to grind down organizers and build an internal atmosphere full of tension, the more likely it is that support will drain from the union before workers can get to the ballot box. 

What's happened is that under Trump, the current administration has appointed a new National Labor Relations Board and that board has actually Reversed, a lot of the improvements that were my team made by Obama and one of those major changes is that they are rolling out a new election schedule that would take away the expedited election and would mean that employers could continue to push back the election day and not agree to one that was more immediate.  Which gives them more time to post captive audience meaning to have one on ones with employees and honestly just like cast more doubt and tension into the process.  - Grace

To many organizers, it felt like tension in the office was again at a boiling point in the wake of the contentious AllHands meeting, creating the potential for management to sway workers on the fence.  

There were people who couldn't be in meetings together. There were people who couldn't collaborate professionally, the way that they would the sort of intimacy that they needed to because this wedge was sort of hovering ever present between us. -Oriana

It was really grim. Grim times You know, like everyone hated using the public pressure using the public pressure.  - Tom

It was like there was a tug of war going on and the people who hadn’t already chosen a side explicitly were being pulled by both sides so aggressively that I was like, are we really going to convince anybody of anything? - Janel

To cool tensions and give the union space to continue organizing without pressure from management leading up to the NLRB election, organizers come up with a simple idea, a trade.  One night, Kate from the union’s national, OPEIU, stood up and pitched the idea to the group.

So our brilliant OPEIU organizer had the idea of offering Kickstarter, a neutrality agreement that included a media blackout where neither, Kickstarter United nor Kickstarter would be able to talk about, their activities on social media or in the press in exchange for Kickstarter signing on not do any more union busting activity that we clearly outlined what that meant. And in, in exchange for Kickstarter identifying who was a part of the bargaining unit before we went to an election. - RV

One of the ways companies stall for more time in an NLRB election process is to create an elongated negotiation process over which workers are eligible to join the union.  This was a likely scenario for Kickstarter since the company’s roles and titles were somewhat unique to tech and potentially confusing to an NLRB agent looking at the bargaining unit for an internet company for the first time in the institution’s history.   This was an opportunity to include a term in the agreement that preemptively countered this long bargaining unit negotiation process.  The neutrality agreement could address that extended eligibility negotiation as the anti union strategy that it is and, if management agreed to a definition of the bargaining unit without a lengthy process, organizers could focus energy and attention on workers who were included. At this point in the drive, all of the external pressure from alumni, backers, creators, and the larger community gave the union leverage.  Maybe management was desperate enough to stop the public pressure, that they would agree to a ceasefire.  A group forms within the union to work out how this agreement could look and function.   What did the union want to demand in exchange for organizers’ silence externally.  

The term neutrality agreement can be a little misleading because it is not itself a neutral document does not mean that we, that we are both agreeing to put ourselves on equal footing. Because that's impossible because they can fire us and we can't fire them.  - John

To bring a sense of neutrality to the process itself, organizers decide to approach one of the most vocally anti-union coworkers and offer to create a collaborative process that represented all workers eligible for the bargaining unit.  They asked her to join them in the process of crafting the neutrality agreement and approaching management. And she said yes.  A few days later, organizers and this leader of the No Committee sit across the table from Kickstarter’s CEO and present the draft agreement.  This is when the union gets a taste of how companies delay and distract union organizers leading up to an NLRB election.  Every few days the union would come back to management with a new version of a proposal that addressed concerns from the last meeting and management would respond with even more suggested edits.  John, one of the union’s most active organizers remembers the back and forth that stretched this process for weeks. 

The Union was trying to make adjustments to the document as is and their proposal was always like a new document. Yeah, and it really it just kind of put us on our heels and we had to like read a whole new document and find all the little ways that there's like editorialize about how unfairly they're being treated or whatever and how like how much of a burden it is on them and how they never actually did anything wrong. And it was really crazy reading some of that stuff. There was one line that was like Kickstarter agrees to not say anything disparaging about the Union, even though we haven't been doing that anyway.  And like,ok, let’s not. - John

This lasted for weeks, and organizers who were trying to maintain the public pressure campaign, continue outreach, and navigate the increasingly hostile atmosphere within Kickstarter, were getting burnt out. 

So full disclosure, I actually, I actually tapped out after a few meetings because I could not handle it. I got to stray got too frustrating and I was too afraid that I was that I was going to snap at Azizin one of those meetings.  He was really trying to Push this like, you know, this idea that it's like a team sport and we're just sort of two sides playing on a even field which is false and... There was one thing in particular that I remember he he really what he really wanted was to be able was was for the for the company to be able to maintain a union FAQ, and to be able to like give out what he thought was neutral information and that neutral information included how much a union would cost the company. Which is ridiculous for a variety of reasons, mostly the first and foremost. How do you know and and so I said like, well, okay, if you want to post, post that you, I think you would also be obligated to post things like what this PR firm that you hire to suppress the union. How much do they cost. And he basically said well, obviously obviously, we all know that we didn't hire this PR company to suppress the Union. And I think that was the moment that I realized I couldn't talk to him like a person. Because, like, he's like, like, you know, we're not having a regular conversation here. That was the moment I was sort of emotionally warn out. - John

At the next union meeting, John tells the group he needs to step back.  And Toy volunteers to stand in his place at these meetings with management. 

John dropped from the group and I stepped in.  They were being unreasonable with like what they were saying that we were going to put it in a neutrality agreement. We’re like, no this doesn't even make sense. It was getting to the point where, you know, we were we were sending back edits immediately we were we were moving very quickly and they were kind of stalling. It felt like they were stalling in a, in a way that was In a way that was like trying to get us to the point where we couldn't file anymore.  - Toy

In any union drive that is forced into an election governed by the National Labor Relations Board, signatures on union cards and petitions expire after a year.  At this point, organizers were looking ahead at the calendar and, if they wanted to hold an election after the holidays to ensure maximum participation, then the election would likely land in February 2020… 11 months after the union started collecting signatures. Any delay could put these signatures in jeopardy.  Now, of course, workers can rescind a signature at any time, but going through the work of verifying and updating every physical signature, several of which had to be sent by mail, would be a challenge, especially if it directly preceded the election.  But beyond this nuance of labor law, organizers could only keep up the public pressure for so long.  The leverage they brought to the table was growing weaker and weaker every day. And management knew it.  Also, the open forum was fast approaching and organizers were bracing themselves for another overtly anti union session where the most vocal anti union workers would dominate the conversation and potentially sway workers on the fence.  Some organizers felt management was waiting to see how the open forum affected support for the union before agreeing to neutrality.  If the union could put an end to the delays, then it would force management to make a decision.  And, no matter the outcome, this was likely a win win for the union.  Either management would sign or they would refuse - either choice would fortify support for the union. Refusing to sign a neutrality agreement might be just as powerful as signing because it would be another clear signal of management’s anti union stance. 

Of the myriad of options our main gut was going to say, oh, they're going to say no to it and then that will then be a leverage, we can use to say see You don't want to be neutral. That was the main path. That was where we were spening most of our time and planning for that.- Tom

The lead organizer from OPEIU, Kate, who had pitched this idea to the group was confident management would refuse to sign and was prepping the group for that eventuality. 

Then Kate tempered our expectations was like, I will eat my hat. If they say yes to this or agreed to neutrality. - Tom

Organizers started to talk openly about what the union would communicate to supporters and how they would make this public, if management continued to delay the process or refused to sign. The next week, the union sent an internal email to the entire company informing workers that management was delaying resolution.  The email ends with quote “It’s been 27 days since we

first approached SOT with suggested terms of neutrality. And we can’t delay any further. Come December 4th, we will be figuring out how to move forward, with or without a Neutrality Agreement.”  Shortly after the union sent this letter to staff, the negotiation started to come together. Even agreement on eligible titles for the bargaining unit so that they could organize, confident that titles wouldn’t be challenged and the election wouldn’t be delayed. 

Is this, genuinely, did this happen? - Tom

I thought we were asking for a lot and I was really surprised when we got it. - RV

Organizers sitting across the table from management start to report back to the union, the neutrality agreement had just been signed.  Tom, another active member of the union drive, takes out his phone and gets on the union slack. 

And then I remember so distinctly after the meeting. Sending a hat emoji. - Tom

A few days later, at the next union meeting, organizers celebrate the win and give Kate, the organizer from OPEIU, a cheeky surprise. 

Infamously she said that she would eat her hat if they signed it.  We were joking about how she was going to have to eat her hat… - John

Someone had made a hat shaped cake that Kate could eat in celebration, which was delightful. It was delicious, although I remember it was it was Even that was was bittersweet because we had to get right back to fucking work.  - Tom

Now organizers are locked into the path of an NLRB election, and, if they were going to win, they needed to push their majority of support to a higher percentage, ensuring that they had margins that could withstand Kickstarter’s high turnover, a new wave of aggressive hiring by management, and any wavering from folks on the fence.  Because Kickstarter had workers who would need to mail in a ballot, this would need to be a “mixed ballot election” where mail in ballots were provided to a small percentage of staff who could not cast ballots in person.  Employees who were not permanently remote or who were on vacation or were sick, all of these regularly in-office employees would need to come into the office to vote, otherwise their absence would be a count against the union. 


In parallel to the union’s negotiations for neutrality with management, Taylor and I were trying to navigate the National Labor Relations Board. I went first, walking into the Brooklyn office, a near windowless building with dim lighting and a labyrinth of small windowless offices.  I sit down with the attorney in charge of conducting an investigation of our charges.  I’m nervous, really nervous.  Seth, our legal rep from OPEIU isn’t allowed to join me since he’s not my personal lawyer.  I had no idea how long the session would take, what to expect, if this would be recorded, what happens next.  The week before this appointment, I’d stayed up every night building a file of documentation, an extensive timeline, and an index of emails, slack messages, and anything I could remember.  

Yeah. So you have, you put together all the documentation you have and you write a timeline. Uh, and this is the document that through communicating it to the representative at the NLRB will be used to create a super document of your experience through a lengthy six to nine. How long was your session? Clarissa in total 17 or 18 hours? Mine was only, I think, seven or eight hours. But you, you, you go through, you talk it out, you talk out everything that happened to you with crazy details and they ask you questions to further dig for more details. That document becomes your signed affidavit testimony. You sign that it's true. And you swear that it's true. - Taylor

I watched the NLRB officer close the door behind us, she sat down, and looked at this 80 page folder of documentation.  I think she could see my hands shaking. This first affidavit interview went on for 8 hours straight.  The first hour was spent explaining tech, from what Slack is to defining crowdfunding. 

Our jobs are unusual. Our jobs are hard to describe to other people in tech, right. And even then they'd be extremely strange to someone who has almost never had any interaction with the tech industry at all. - Taylor

The NLRB attorney mentioned that everyone in the office was interested in this case so she wanted to record as much as possible, this was new territory for the NLRB.  Taylor’s interview was also incredibly long and detailed but, as exhausting as the meetings were, they felt like momentum.  At one point, after explaining how management continued to deny me performance metrics, the NLRB attorney stopped taking notes and said, “I see what’s going on here.” Taylor’s interview had a similar vibe. It felt like we had an ally. 

I got a few gasps. I think the biggest moment that she reacted to was the screen grab I had of our, our manager lying to the team immediately after I was fired about the context of my firing, you know, especially once I had shown her the documents that were to the contrary, it's like, and you could see that her face was like, I I've never seen someone do something so stupid. I mean, to lie. So blatantly in print where anyone can screen, grab and save, it is inane. And yet there, it was. - Taylor 

All told, I think my affidavit interview was about 17 hours over two days.  I remember distinctly that it didn’t feel like the legal session I’d imagined. For one thing, we were completely on our own in this huge elongated period of exposure.  We didn’t have a lawyer sitting next to us for guidance and there was so much said that it was almost impossible to keep track of everything that was covered or if any context was missing. 

It was a fog. You know, I talk straight for like eight hours and you know, and one of the most emotionally trying periods of my life, uh, it was, yeah, she could have told me there was a tarantula crawling on my face at the time and I would've grinned and said, okay, thank you.  - Taylor quote. 

At the end, I asked what’s next, and she told me that the burden of proof now rested on Kickstarter.  The NLRB would present its findings to Kickstarter’s legal team and they would respond.  And, that if for some reason, Kickstarter could prove the firings were not union related, Taylor and I would get a chance to respond to any allegations made by Kickstarter. This felt fair and I walked out of the NLRB Brooklyn office relieved.  

I think all of us who got fired had a good case. - Taylor 

A few days after these affidavit interviews, Seth from OPEIU gets a call from the NLRB attorney.  She tells him that, while recording Taylor’s interview, she noticed that our manager did something else illegal that the union had not filed a charge against.  The action she was referring to was the moment our manager explicitly told Taylor that he should not mention his Performance Improvement Plan in union outreach conversations.  The NLRB attorney tells Seth that he should file a charge immediately because the statute of limitations, 6 months, was about to expire. Seth immediately phones Taylor and they decide to file another unlawful labor practice charge against Kickstarter.  

 🎶(tense drums to create space in the narrative)

Just a week after the NLRB presented its initial findings to Kickstarter’s legal team, something big happened.  Late one night, I come up out of the subway and got a call from Kate, our organizer from OPEIU.  It was raining, so I ducked under an overpass and stood in joyous silence as she told me, we got em.  Shortly after the NLRB presented their findings to Kickstarter’s legal team, the manager who fired me and Taylor resigned, then shortly after that the Head of HR resigned, and shortly after that the General Counsel set a resignation date for just after the election.

I mean, whether they resigned because work was miserable or they were fired because they had obviously done it in an incompetent job that opened up the company to incredible PR and legal liability. You know, it's one of those things. I mean, whether they quit or fired it, I think either way, it's absolutely because of the union. - Taylor

These were three of the most visibly anti union managers at the company.  Each had played a major role not only in the firings of Taylor and me, but in the retaliation after Always Punch Nazis, in the firing of Justine, Sarah, the forcing out of Alex, Trav’s constructive termination, and management’s most devastating anti union strategy.  We got em. But, when management announced these resignations, they were framed as unrelated to the union.  Both the Head of HR and the Head of Community, our manager, had farewell gatherings where it was repeated that they were leaving on good terms.  And the intentional delayed resignation of Kickstarter’s General Counsel, where he would stay on at the company until the election, like Trav’s delayed firing, distanced him from the other firings, making it harder for workers to track what changes in leadership were union related.  

Cause they made it seem like he was leaving on his own accord, but he was definitely let go. - Toy  

If you wanted a face for the aggressive anti union, like that’s him, and him leaving felt like oh maybe there’s some progress happening here, a little bit. - Janel


Open Forum

November 5th, 2019, on the heels of these resignations, organizers head into the open forum that had been suggested by vocally anti union workers and was supported by management.   

The company was willing to spend upwards of $30,000 for a mediator and for organizational costs for this thing.  - Dannel

The moment management and the No Committee started to seed this open forum, organizers worked to be involved in the process. Dannel, one of our most active organizers, took on the bulk of the responsibility for coordinating with the No Committee and Kickstarter’s events team.

Because I knew that if someone from the Union did not offer to organize this then it was going to be anti union dribble the whole way down. - Dannel

This planning group broke down into roughly one person who was on the fence or at least not active on either side, one person who was a strong yes vote and organizer, Dannel, and lastly one very vocal no vote who unbeknownst to the group had recently been told he would be promoted out of being eligible to join the union and up into management - this is the same worker who had seeded the idea of this open forum at AllHands. 

Even before we had our, our second organizing meeting, [worker] informed us that he was going to be a manager and thus recused himself from further organizing of this thing that he put into motion...  - Dannel

Now union organizers had to take on the bulk of the planning work for this open forum that they knew would be a format that discouraged pro union sentiment.  So, the union and Kickstarter’s events team were charged with planning this event and organizers tried to create a safe space as much as possible. 

And we told every, every person in management that no one could be in the office, like, and they agreed to this, obviously, but no one in management could be in the office at the time that the open forum was happening.  - Dannel

On the day of, staff gathers, forming a large circle and organizers prepare to facilitate a rapid fire open forum where each worker would have 30-60 seconds to comment about the union.  This is not a discussion, it’s somewhat of a zoetrope made up of individual voices sharing independent perspectives on the union effort. 

Everybody in the union really cared and really gave a shit and they were really there for that meeting. The first person who spoke was John, who is a union organizer, and poor John, he’s such a sweet shy sweety and it was so obvious that he was like, I’m gonna speak first and I’m gonna be pro union.  - Trin

From the jump, as organizers expected, it was clear this open forum was not a format that would encourage pro union sentiment.  John, the first worker to speak, remembers the anxiety of this event. 

My frustration with this is that it is a highly individualistic way of dealing with the problem. Which is to say, you know, you all you have is your voice here and you're only worth your voice. And I think that people who would tend to join the Union 10 there tend to be interested in in being part of a Union tend to include more people who value. A safer way a safer way of talking and having their knowing that they're, they're called they have their collective at their back, and it also tend to include people who Have problems that they're not comfortable talking about in a large and and you know mixed say a not universally sympathetic audience. So it's just naturally going to create a skewed perspective.  - John

One by one, workers spoke up about how they were feeling, their experiences at Kickstarter, and their perspectives on the union. A worker would state how grateful they were to be at Kickstarter and how they didn’t see why the company needed a union.

And then a marginalized person would say, you know, I wish we had a standardized process for reviews, I wish I understood better how I was doing with my progress, I wish that I felt I could be promoted into a higher position, I wish that there were more protections for me.  This isn’t the best job I ever had, I actually feel really isolated.  They were giving real reasons why Kickstarter is not the perfect place to work and why we had room for improvement, why we should work together. But then, the next four people, as though they did not hear this person, would say I just don’t get it, and I wanted to jump through my screen. - Trin

I mean, what was truly maddening was so Travis was there. This was in his sort of limbo period where you still technically work the Kickstarter. On his turn. He said, I was fired for union activity. And yeah, people like right after him to, like, I don't think there's any anti Union activity - it's like it was so mad. Like I was going crazy. And actually, this is where I really appreciate Tran. She was remote she's, she's full time remote and when she got on she fucking flew off the handle… - John

I am so tired of a marginalized person telling us exactly what they want, exactly why this place is difficult for them to work, and then a few white people telling everybody why that didn’t matter and expressing that they did not hear them at all. Ya it was sad, it was very very sad how everybody had the opportunity to say what they wanted and it was very clear that they cared more about saying the thing than actually listening to the real complaints that other people had. - Trin

Then it was Toy’s turn to speak.

You know, I, my experience at Kickstarter has been a tumultuous one I've had for managers, since I started I watched a member of my team be gas lit about their role that I helped write the job description of In order to force them to not become a part of the bargaining unit because they were seen as a threat. I have watched my friends be fired for being organizers, I have watched my friends be harassed for being organizers and I think that there are things that are inherently wrong with this, the structure and the way that this company is run and how it treats its employees that are counter to the mission that it says that it has.   - Toy

This open forum did what every anti union tactic aims to achieve, it divided workers, suppressed dissent, and exhausted organizers. 

I remember thinking like… like.. fuck. If people hear all this and can't still understand The reason for our Union then i don't know… - Tom

And, there was an additional threat within the confines of this event.  Even though managers had agreed to leave the building for these Open Forums, this was not a safe space.  

There weren't managers, but there were like people who worked on the legal team, and like our HR rep who like works really closely with like senior leadership. There are definitely folks who like I felt uncomfortable having in the room because it felt like who knew who they were going to go talk to.  - RV

There were anti-union workers attending who had been feeding information to management, there were confidential employees who worked very closely with management and were not eligible to join the bargaining unit, and... there actually was a manager who attended.  The very person who had suggested the open forum and then stepped down from organizing it because he’d been promoted to management. He didn’t speak but organizers remember this new manager quietly sitting in.

The clear sense afterwards, was that there are some real wounds here. And we've ripped off the band aid, but we haven't applied any antiseptic, you know, like we haven't really done anything to treat this and so it felt bad. If you’re thinking about this in terms of strategy of trying to get all these people to vote for a union, there can be zero missteps, and you can't slide backwards our margins. Are thin enough already. So, so yeah, so that's kind of why I thought terribly about it because I didn't feel like I had done a collective good. - Dannel

The way this meeting ended was pretty much what Dannel and the other organizers who helped plan it were expecting.  It was not a win for the union, if anything it gave the impression that more people were against the union than for it.  But, this open forum gave organizers an opportunity.  This was an opening to demonstrate the power of solidarity and to demonstrate the union’s commitment to worker issues.   

I was approached by multiple people who said they wanted another one because for as difficult as those conversations were They still enabled something incredibly unique somewhere. These conversations don't happen you know like these conversations don't happen at companies because They just, they just don't like this is not a thing that you typically discuss with your co workers, unless you either have a union or management’s trying to union busting a very specific way. You know, like, and so for as as terribly as I felt After it I still felt the responsibility to do another one.  - Dannel  

For the second open forum, there was significant drop-off like maybe half, as many people showed up and it was only folks who are willing to do the work. So predominantly people who are union supporters, and then a couple of folks who had been like vocally adversarial, but still like actively engaged which was super interesting because it was like, all right, everyone, everyone came to like the original, like open forum, bitch Fest. But then when it came to the second one, we're actually going to dig into it and talk about what needed to be done. The folks who wanted to show up and do the work where the union folks who had already been showing up to do the work for over a year at that point. - RV

After this session, RV left the building with other members of the organizing committee, walked to Transmitter park a few blocks from the Kickstarter office, down to the edge of the pier, and joined in as organizers stood together yelling and screaming into the crashing waters and howling winds of the East River. 

And then we went and drank, because it was just like this, like this, like having to put ourselves on display, like this is exhausting. And also like being in a position where people who are adversarial and anti-union, they're able to like spew their opinions and their misconceptions without us being able to actually respond and fact check them. It was, it was so difficult.  - RV


The Election 

By mid December, the union and Kickstarter’s management had agreed on a date for the NLRB election, January 23rd 2020.  With the neutrality agreement in place, now it was time for organizers to lock in every possible yes vote.  The finish line was in sight.  There were still a significant number of workers who were on the fence but OPEIU assured us that the voter turnout would be incredibly high so it was imperative organizers continue to engage workers even if they proclaimed they “didn’t want to pick a side.” The margin was nerverackingly thin, with 60% confirmed support.  Since the union needed 50% plus one to win and Kickstarter was such a small company, there were only a few people standing between a win and a loss. There were workers who would be on vacation, out sick, or on leave who simply by not being able to come into the office on the day of the election, would not be allowed to cast a ballot, not even a mail in ballot because they were based at Kickstarter HQ. So the union did everything possible to secure every last vote.  Even one more commitment could make or break the election. 

I offered to fly one of our bargaining unit members from Florida to the office for the day of the vote, we were in the middle of trying to figure out all those logistics two nights before something like that ridiculous but Yeah, that's how. That's how much I believe in it.  - Dannel

Some of the union’s solid yes votes start to peel off.  They take jobs somewhere else, get promoted, or they just quit Kickstarter out of frustration.  One of our remote supporters was offered a job at HQ and turned it down, ending her contract and separating her from the company before the vote. 

I don’t want to move to one of the most expensive cities in the world and then get fired for unionizing. But ultimately, I did not want to work at a company that had proven itself to be anti union.- Trin

Just a week before the election, while organizers are scrambling to sure up support, Taylor and I get a call from Seth, our legal rep from OPEIU.  Our cases had been moved to DC.  We didn’t know it at the time but, the NLRB’s Trump appointed General Counsel, had personally requested the cases for review.  At the time, we thought this was the next step in the process, that this was a sign that the NLRB was moving forward against Kickstarter’s management. Shortly after this call, we get a call from Kate, our OPEIU organizer.  She tells us… that technically, legally, we are allowed to vote in the election.  Because we had open cases with the NLRB, we were still considered part of the eligible bargaining unit and, if the margins were thin enough… these two votes might be what determines the results of the election.  

And they say, Hey, look, you’re still allowed to vote. Would you be willing to come back to Kickstarter and cast a-  hell yes! I like, I I didn't even let them finish because the answer is hell yes. - Taylor


Day Of Vote

Just a few days later, on January 23rd, Kickstarter held the long awaited NLRB election.  The union had no room for error, every vote was critical, every vote felt like it could make or break the election. 

Because when you file for an election with the NLRB, the thing is if you lose, you cannot file for an election for a whole year. So it's really high stakes.  -RV

The morning of the election, organizers are up bright and early, ready to carry out a carefully coordinated blend of inspirational comms and final outreach.  An email titled Yes Because hits the inboxes of every worker at the company.  It’s a bright cheery collection of statements from workers expressing why they are voting yes for the union.  As they walk into the office, organizers get to work encouraging coworkers to vote.

You can't count votes when it comes to union elections, that's illegal. You can't like monitor the polls. It's meant to be a really neutral and safe environment. And so we were really like, clear about not crossing any of those boundaries, but also making sure that everyone like remembered to vote.  - RV

Organizers would ask questions that reminded folks to vote but didn’t ask for information about whether someone voted.  Questions like: 

What's your plan for election day? What time are you planning to go? Do you want to check in afterwards, like I'm happy to like go for a walk or talk about how it went or whatever.  - RV

This stream of check ins was punctuated by moments of intense last minute outreach with colleagues still on the fence. 

I managed to convince someone that very morning.  - Dannel

Dannel carved out time for one last one on one with a coworker who had been on the fence.  

She wanted to talk to me.  I was trying to figure out the way to talk to her. But she wanted to talk to me that morning. And so we went down Kent Street and she was like, I don't know, like, what does this what does this get us you know like what does this what does this accomplish. And I... there's kind of a script like the way you do outreach like as much as I went on this whole tirade about there not being a script like this kind of a script. I honestly told her, like, I think this moves forward in a better way. I think this guarantees protections for people who have not had these protections. You know, like and that sounds like the script like that sounds like the ones that you said over and over again. But I, I tried to put feeling behind it. I didn't I didn't say it was because I was disabled. I didn't say it was because she had a family. Those are all pieces of things that I knew, but I didn't feel that we're honest to say. I just told her I I firmly believe. And this was almost fuck was this religious. I’m only realizing this now, but this is almost like a firm belief that if this doesn't happen, things will be worse. Yeah, I feel like I've been proven over time. You know, like but I didn't know it at the time I didn't know all of this was coming to this head like the president at the time that I did it. I just said, if this doesn't happen. This will be an infinitely worse company to work for and And I don't remember the exact words where she said, Okay, I'm voting guess I just remember that she said, Okay, I'm voting yes. - Dannel

While a frenzy of last minute outreach spreads across Kickstarter, Toy, a member of the organizing committee, is actually spending the entire day upstairs in the ballot box room to act as an observer. Both the union and the company select a representative to act as an observer on the day of the vote. There were members of the NLRB sitting alongside these two observers.  Every time a worker came into the room, an NLRB agent would ask the person’s name and then each observer marked off their name on a master list. 

We are responsible for verifying who those folks are. We also, we also make sure there's no like shady things that go on. There's two sessions like there was the morning session in the afternoon session and in between the sessions like the the NLRB folks they like sealed the box and then we had to sign over all of the seals.  It was an exciting day, it was historical, you know, you could feel it.  Some people look nervous, like it was wild. Like the there were there were folks who like you could see them shaking as they like put a ballot in the box. - Toy 

That day was just agony. I don't like... I don't bite my nails anymore. But I think like my nails were just like destroyed at the end of that day. And yeah, you would just go in and there was a really, really confusingly worded ballot that had like three double negatives in it. And I had to triple check but I said yes. The right thing and drop that in the ballot and walked out and then didn't stop shaking like the rest of the day. - Patrick

I remember being extremely paranoid. I remember like reading a triple checking and being like, Please, please, please.  - Tom

Being really anxious that we checked the right side of the paper you know what I mean, like, I like it's a very simple form. It's literally a two boxes but we're all very actually we had for some reason, check. The wrong box.  The most striking thing is that that's the first time I've ever voted on something at work. So, yeah that was cool. I know it was like I was like oh wow, like I felt really good. And I remember thinking like, you know, even if we lose I experienced democracy at work once in my career at least.  - John

I have enacted my right to vote as an American citizen, many times.  But this one was the one that had the largest effect, right, like for as little as it's just checking a box that says yes or no. This one had the largest effect in my life. I've elected president, you know, like It never feels like I have, but in this case I did something.  - Dannel

Clarissa & Taylor Vote

As the sun set, about an hour before the polls closed, Taylor and I met up at his studio around the corner from Kickstarter.  This place, where the union met every week, was the headquarters for election day.  I open the door and see our OPEIU organizers.  Every once in a while, Kickstarter United organizers would pop in for a quick chat or to ask if there’s anything else they could be doing to help. 

So we had the, like we had our current employees, we know who is eligible to vote. We knew that we wanted everyone to be able to vote. And we did a really like focused job of making sure that everyone voted on election day. But we also had Taylor and Clarissa, our colleagues who had been illegally fired for union activity, who currently had charges at the NLRB. And we knew that like, it was important for them to be able to cast their ballot on election day, because if, and when the NLRB like closes that case and finds Kickstarter having violated labor law, like Clarissa and Taylor's voices should have, should be a part of the decision. And so we knew we wanted them to be able to vote. We knew that some of our colleagues would be upset to see Taylor and Clarissa voting. And so we were trying to be really strategic about how we involve them in this, in this process that they had a right to have a say in while also ensuring that we didn't unnecessarily pissed off our colleagues. And so we, um, made a plan where, Clarissa and Taylor could come in, um, towards the end of the day, um, during, um, when the polls were open. Um, and we were hoping that they would just be able to go up and vote and then leave. - RV

With just 20 minutes before the polls closed, Taylor and I walk over to Kickstarter HQ.  It was a 4 minute stroll that felt like the longest walk of my life.  There was so much excitement and anxiety as we got closer and closer to the front door.  A few days before at the union meeting, I shakily told the group that I wasn’t sure if I could do it, physically.  Each time I imagined walking into HQ, I nearly fainted and I was fairly sure this big effort to give Taylor and I a chance to vote would end abruptly with me face planting the moment I walked in the lobby. But as we got to the front door, I see my pal Oriana.

We wanted to protect both of the returning employees. And so we assigned union pro union people to be outside to receive them to walk them in to like take to the vote, so that nobody would so that they would feel safe and nobody would object to their presence there. It was an honor to be able to escort my fallen comrades to the vote that they had been fighting for for so long.  - Oriana

We walk in with Oriana and immediately see the warm smiling faces of our fellow union organizers.  I step up to the little ipad at the front desk to sign in and then, surrounded by a bubble of union members, I leave Taylor behind and walk to the elevator.  My heart is racing but, just a few floors up and I’d be at the polls.  

We could have either taken the stairs or the elevator and for some reason we were like let's just take the elevator and so we opened the elevator door and Some, like the chances of this happening are certainly like almost zero. But of course, when we open the door. The General Counsel of Kickstarter is in the elevator. And we are just like, all right, fine. Got to do this and we walked in and just door closes we push the elevator button and then [General Counsel] sees that you know you're there, and he's like, Like says like Clarissa why you're not allowed to be here. Why are you here and my memory of this is, I was just like, Oh, shit. What do we say, What do we say and Clarissa. You were just like…  - Patrick

I’m here to vote.  It will be contested but I have the right to vote. 

I remember in my head being like, fucking hell yeah. Hell yeah. And like I think me and Patrick afterwards. We're talking about that are like Oh no, so good. Oh, fuck. But it felt like a million years between between one floor of that elevator, good lord.  - Tom

The elevator doors open and the General Counsel hurries out and gets on the phone. 

Oh my god, also why was he going to the second floor, what was he doing there!  - Tom

The doors slowly close and organizers are pumped, just a couple more floors to go. What we didn’t know, was that at that moment, Taylor was being stopped from entering the building.  A vocally anti-union lower level manager hurried up to the front desk as he was signing in and told organizers Taylor had been put on a special list of people who were no longer allowed in the building.  But, just a few moments later, Kickstarter’s General Counsel arrives at the front desk. 

And he comes upstairs the color of a setting sun, just like the most luminous Crimson purple Tangerine. All the colors of rage looks like his head's gonna pop just glowering at me. Uh, as I happily walk by him and go up the elevator to where I can cast my vote.  - Taylor 

Kickstarter’s General Counsel tells the office manager to stand down, that Kickstarter’s management could not stop this, they had to let Taylor pass, they had to let us both vote, it was the law. Then, the General Counsel books it upstairs to the polls and angrily tells the NLRB agents that Kickstarter would be contesting these two votes. 

How angry. He got after you and Taylor came to vote. Was one of my, like, favorite, [General Counsel] moments ever like he got so angry and everyone in the room was just like why are you so mad. They can come and vote if they want like Even the folks like at the NLRB like that we're there to like facilitate were just looking at him like, why are you so. Why you mad. - Toy 

Taylor casts his ballot, for the union, and we all left together. 

It was like walking on a fucking cloud, I loved it. - Taylor


Next in the oral history of Kickstarter’s union... every vote is counted.

They bring in the box with all the ballots and they bring it into the table at the front. And they literally just take out every ballot and show it to the audience. And they say, whether it's a yes or no and they put it into a pile and then someone marks a tally for that yes or no. And so they're just reading every ballot, like, yes, no, yes, no, no, no, no, no, no, no...  - Patrick


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.