A number of workers at Kickstarter are currently trying to organize a union, an effort the company has actively opposed from the start. The CEO made it clear that the company doesn’t want a union and would not voluntarily recognize one. Several weeks ago, during the middle of the organizing campaign, Kickstarter suddenly fired two of the lead organizers. Sources inside Kickstarter confirmed to the press that the firings were not, as the company insisted, merely performance-related.
When the union organizers were fired, Current Affairs happened to be in the middle of a Kickstarter campaign. As a left publication, we were appalled, and didn’t want to publicly support an anti-union company. So we got together with our colleagues at Protean Magazine, Pinko Magazine, the Nib, and the Baffler (all of whom had done Kickstarter campaigns in the past) and released a statement condemning the firings and expressing solidarity with the union. We invited other Kickstarter project creators to join us on the statement, which hundreds did, including well-known creators like Neil Gaiman, Anita Sarkeesian, Molly Crabapple, and Richard Herring. Collectively, the creators on our statement have raised millions of dollars on the platform (my estimate is $10 million, but I stopped counting around 5). We were united in (1) appreciating Kickstarter’s staff and the great platform they have created and (2) being firmly opposed to the company’s anti-union activities and supportive of the workers’ rights. (If you have created a Kickstarter project, please consider signing. Read some of the statements people have made here.)
As our campaign took off and started to attract press attention, I received a message from Kickstarter’s chief communications officer. He asked me if I would like to talk on the phone so that he could address our concerns. I spoke with him, and explained that his company’s actions violated the core values of the creators on our statement. Not only that, I explained that Kickstarter was actually damaging its creators’ projects. I had supporters of Current Affairs saying they were ambivalent about donating to our campaign because they didn’t want to support Kickstarter (who take a percentage of all funds raised). Pro-labor project creators who hadn’t yet met their funding goals were especially hurt. One creator was actually raising money for a game about union organizing, and felt he couldn’t in good conscience stay with the platform but didn’t want to lose the money he’d raised for his game.
After I told the communications officer this, he argued that Kickstarter was not, in fact, an anti-union company. I pointed out to him that since his company was in the middle of fighting against their workers’ union effort, they were anti-union in a literal and undeniable sense. I said the creators on our statement held very different values to those of Kickstarter. We did not resolve anything on the conversation, but he said the company was thinking through how to respond and he would be in touch.
Today, Kickstarter offered its response. The communications officer emailed me, and said he would like to share a statement from the CEO with the project creators. The statement said that Kickstarter:
- Stood by its decision to fire the organizers, and would be dispatching its lawyers to fight their claims.
- Would not voluntarily recognize a union even if the vast majority of workers signed in support of one.
- Would not pledge to remain neutral on unionization, and would continue to actively oppose the effort.
The statement was the most blatant slap in the face imaginable to both the workers and the project creators. It says, in essence: drop dead. We do not care what you think. We do not want a union and we are going to try to stop one from forming. We will fire union organizers if we want to, and if they complain to the National Labor Relations Board, they will be facing our lawyers. Kickstarter heard the hundreds of creators who signed our statement, and they have said plainly and unequivocally that they reject our values and will remain an anti-union company.
I was not surprised by Kickstarter’s statement. The company is officially a public benefit corporation, meaning that it is supposed to follow objectives beyond the mere pursuit of profit, but in practice this often means little. (To make companies behave better to their staff, you need to change the balance of power between workers and owners, not just insert rhetoric about doing good into the corporate charter. Hence the need for unions.) I also knew, having seen internal documentation, that company executives had been meeting with the infamous Brunswick public relations agency, previously hired to clean up BP’s reputation after the Gulf oil spill. That was a very clear sign that Kickstarter intended to fight back using propaganda and spin rather than making reasonable concessions.
Sure enough, the CEO’s statement includes a lot of nonsense about how a union would turn workplace relations “inherently adversarial,” which “doesn’t reflect who we are as a company.” (If the majority of workers want a union, your relations are already adversarial. Continuing to fight them on their request for recognition is especially adversarial.) As is usual with companies opposing unions, it makes vague unsubstantiated claims about how there are rumors workers are being pressured to join the union. (Even as the CEO uses his influence to pressure the workers not to join the union.) The statement insists that “we are acting in good faith,” even as it declares that Kickstarter will not recognize the majority of its workers’ wishes. (It will instead require the union to go through a complicated election procedure overseen by the Trump administration’s National Labor Relations Board. No doubt it will also throw endless additional legal impediments in the way, albeit in “good faith.”)
As I say, I was not surprised by this, because CEOs are CEOs. But it was certainly unfortunate that the company decided to spit in the face of its workers and project creators. For Current Affairs, it means that we now have to cease using Kickstarter for our fundraising efforts. Who can possibly partner with a company that is actively and proudly trying to union-bust? Why should we give 5 percent of our supporters’ money to a corporation that will use it to hire lawyers and P.R. professionals to keep its workers from exercising their rights? Kickstarter has made it quite clear that it doesn’t want our business. It has given a giant middle finger to its union-supporting project creators. I don’t know if the company expects them to continue hosting projects on its platform, but I would be surprised if many wanted to return.
Kickstarter has made its position clear. It is against unions. It opposes its workers’ effort to organize. It will not be changing its mind. It will be fighting its own staff and its project creators. Now, Kickstarter’s users must make their position clear. We will not tolerate union-busting. We will not give our money to a company that does it. We demand that the company reverse its position and commit to voluntarily recognizing the union if a majority of workers signal support. The company is taking its workers and users for granted. If they get away with it, other companies will feel even more empowered to crush their own organizing efforts. It is critically important that Kickstarter be loudly opposed.
If you are a Kickstarter project creator, please read and sign the creators’ solidarity statement. You can read the communications officer’s email and the CEO’s statement here. My response is below:
I am very sorry to see that Kickstarter has not altered its position in any way. I am sure you realize that the creators who signed our statement will view this letter as insulting and hostile. You have affirmed that your company:
(1) Will not remain neutral and actively opposes a union. You have misleadingly stated that unions create an “adversarial” dynamic. This is false. The hierarchical structure of companies inherently gives workers less power than owners and executives. Unions are necessary to correct that imbalance. This is why our signers so strongly believe that the workers deserve a union. It is upsetting that your company has declined to understand this, and is deliberately smearing the union as a trouble-making entity rather than recognizing the value of unions in creating a fairer and more equal workplace.
(2) Will not voluntarily recognize a union, no matter how many workers ask. You know full well that NLRB elections are time-consuming processes that provide employers with numerous opportunities to throw obstacles in the path of union organizers. You have persisted in throwing up spurious objections (“some supervisors have been involved”) that make no sense and have no evidence. It is quite obvious that the power of the CEO to deter people from signing their names is far greater than that of a lower-tier supervisor. Voluntary recognition is a fair process, and the fact that Kickstarter refuses to recognize it shows that it is actively opposed to the labor movement. You say this is “impossible.” This is a falsehood. It is perfectly possible. It is a choice, and calling it “impossible” is simply refusing to accept responsibility for that choice.
(3) Stands by its decision to fire union organizers during the middle of an organizing campaign, and now vows to fight those fired organizers legally. In doing so, not only do you brand these workers liars, but you have accused the numerous other Kickstarter workers who have affirmed the fired workers’ accounts of being liars.
Your company’s statement is unacceptable in every single way. I had hoped that Kickstarter would pay attention to its creators, and take seriously its status as a public benefits corporation. I see Kickstarter is determined to confirm every negative impression of it as a company hostile to labor organizing.
Our company will not be returning to your platform. I am certain that many of the other 300 signatories to our statement will feel the same. You have made it clear where your company stands, and that its values do not align with our own.
I did not wish to become a public critic of Kickstarter. I have had nothing but positive experiences with your staff. Unfortunately, your company’s continued anti-union stance has put us into this position. I still maintain hope that the company will reflect on its values and reconsider this damaging and indefensible position.
P.S. I find your postscript to be gratuitously offensive. We are fortunate that our campaign made its goal before Kickstarter started firing union organizers. After the news began, our supporters began revolting and I had to convince them not to pull donations. We were unable to continue promoting our campaign, because every time we did, people criticized us for partnering with an anti-union company, which you have now admitted you are. As a result of our inability to promote the campaign in good conscience, our fundraiser has made far less money than it otherwise could have. I have talked to others who have been panicking because they have not made their goals, and Kickstarter’s anti-union stance makes it difficult for them to continue. You have damaged your creators through your actions. They do not need your congratulations. They need you to stop opposing labor organizing in your workplace and commit to voluntary recognition, which is the bare minimum that a “public benefits” corporation should be expected to do for its workers.