Current Affairs

Kickstarter’s Union-Busting Hurts Its Project Creators

How can any of us work with a company that does this?

I like Kickstarter. How could I not? Current Affairs started in 2015 through a Kickstarter campaign. We raised $16,600 and were able to print our first issue. Back then boxes of magazines filled my living room, and we used to drag them a mile through the snow (I swear to God this is true!) to the post office. Now, we have a physical office, a small full-time paid staff, and earn over $300,000 a year. All made possible by that first campaign. We’re not one of Kickstarter’s biggest projects, but we’re certainly one of its success stories. Without any advertisers or investors we were able to build a successful, sustainable operation by using Kickstarter’s platform.

In fact, when we wanted to raise some more money this year for some exciting new projects, we returned to Kickstarter. It’s an effective and easy-to-use platform that allows you to explain your project clearly and makes it simple to donate. Kickstarter’s staff are great, and really help you in refining your pitch for maximum reach and persuasiveness. When we started our new campaign, the reaction was beyond anything we’d expected: We reached the $50,000 goal we’d set in just five days! Our staff were thrilled: The magazine can do all kinds of great stuff with money like this, including more reporting, an overhauled website, new videos, and better podcasts. With more than 20 days left on the fundraiser, we started strategizing about ways that we could keep encouraging people to contribute. We’ve planned out a bunch of new articles and videos, all of which we were going to debut to direct people to the fundraiser.

And then we saw a news story with Kickstarter workers alleging that Kickstarter had fired multiple union organizers for their organizing activity, and had long opposed its workers’ unionizing effort. Current Affairs makes no secret of being a leftist publication, and immediately we began getting questions from readers: Why were we choosing to partner with a union-busting company? Of course, we wouldn’t want to partner with a union-busting company. The negative press immediately posed a problem for those of us in the middle of ongoing campaigns: How could we keep asking people to donate if a portion of their money was going to a company that won’t respect its workers’ labor rights? How are we supposed to respond to people who are uncomfortable supporting Kickstarter now? What if people start to pull their existing pledges? Kickstarter isn’t just hurting its workers, but it’s hurting ongoing campaigns like ours. How can we partner with Kickstarter anymore?

Now, the company says that they didn’t fire these union organizers because they were union organizers, but because of Performance-Related Issues. But regarding one firing, Slate talked to “five current and former employees with knowledge of the dismissal” who “say that managers didn’t follow their normal procedure.” Five is quite a lot of confirming sources. And the company has been open about its hostility to the unionizing effort. The CEO previously “told the staff of about 150 that if the union asked for voluntary recognition from Kickstarter, the company would not grant it,” and would require them to undergo a long, complicated NLRB election process instead. “I know this position is disappointing to some of you who were hoping the company would voice support for this effort,” the CEO said. They also admit having held meetings where an “impartial outside expert” would “educate staff” about unions. (Anyone who has been to one of these meetings knows just how “impartial” these paid consultants tend to be.)

So Kickstarter’s own public statements have made it quite clear that it is trying to stop its employees from unionizing. But that means that they’re opposing their workers in an attempt to exercise a basic right: the right to bargain collectively. Unions help workers secure not just better pay, but a voice in how companies are operated. (Read German Lopez’s excellent Vox essay on how he went from being critical of unions to being an enthusiastic organizer for one.) I don’t see how project creators can work with a company that won’t recognize its workers’ rights.

Frankly, Kickstarter has put us in a very difficult position. We are proud of the projects we’ve done on their platform. We don’t want to boycott Kickstarter, because the union doesn’t want us to, and because a boycott would hurt ongoing projects that haven’t already met their fundraising goal. (On Kickstarter, if you don’t meet your goal, you don’t get any of the money you raise. Thank goodness we met our fundraising goal so quickly, otherwise we would have needed to ask people to keep donating even if they were uncomfortable doing so.)

We realized very quickly that if Current Affairs didn’t publicly oppose what Kickstarter was doing, we would rightfully be seen as complicit. I talked to the editors of two other magazines, Protean and Pinko, both of whom were also doing Kickstarter campaigns. We decided we should put out a statement condemning the company’s activities and expressing solidarity with the union. We asked other creators to sign on. In less than a day, more than 30 other creators, collectively representing more than $1,400,000 in Kickstarter fundraising, added their names. (If you’ve created a project on Kickstarter before, please add your name and a link to your project.) One creator has done over 40 successful Kickstarter projects, and says the news about Kickstarter’s opposition to union organizing was enough to turn him instantly from a strong lifetime supporter to a skeptic with mixed feelings. I am sure we will find that many other creators feel similarly: Having been helped so much by the work of Kickstarter’s staff, we don’t like to see them denied their basic labor rights.

I have contacted Kickstarter to explain the harm they’re doing to our project and others. Now, I know that sound a little self-interested, and it is: We know that our fundraiser is being undermined by Kickstarter’s actions, and would prefer not to have it undermined! But that’s also why I hope Kickstarter will listen. It is obvious that Kickstarter doesn’t respect the views of its workers, but I am hoping that it might care about the project creators, on whose fundraising efforts it entirely depends. If we make it clear that we oppose this and are uncomfortable with it, hopefully Kickstarter will take note.

I am not sure what to do now. I do not know whether to encourage people to keep donating to our Kickstarter, though we still want to keep raising funds! (Our website does also have a “donate” feature.) What I would really like is for Kickstarter to solve the problem, by fixing its toxic brand and making it so that all of us on the list can enthusiastically keep promoting our projects. The way I see it, there’s only one way to solve that problem:

  1. Rehire the fired organizers
  2. Promise to remain neutral on unionization
  3. Promise to voluntarily recognize a union if the majority of workers indicate their support for one

I don’t know what else could give creators like us confidence that Kickstarter respects its workers. From my own perspective, I hope they take these steps quickly, because I’d like to get back to promoting our magazine. I do not want to be running an anti-Kickstarter campaign, gathering creators together to condemn the company. I wanted to run a fundraising campaign, one that would help our magazine. Unfortunately, we now have to spend our time gathering creators together, because it’s the position that Kickstarter has put us in by opposing unionization.

I want to do more Kickstarter projects in the future. They’ve been good for us. Last time we earned $16,000. This time it is $58,000 and counting. Who knows what it could be next time? Current Affairs is a growing business, and a classic Kickstarter success story. But the right to a union is fundamental, and it’s hard to keep promoting a company that doesn’t respect that right.

Read the creators’ statement here. If you are a current or former Kickstarter creator, please sign the statement here

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