The Industry

Kickstarter’s Year of Turmoil

How a Nazi-punching satire led to the first union drive at a well-known tech company—and, workers say, the firing of two organizers in eight days.

The Kickstarter logo, broken, with an image of the Kickstarter office inside it.
Over the past year, a series of incidents convinced Kickstarter employees that they should have a bigger voice within the company. Photo illustration by Slate. Images by Kickstarter and Jim Henderson/Wikimedia Commons.

Kickstarter never wanted to be a normal tech company. A crowdfunding platform for artists, gadget-makers, and entrepreneurs, the company became a “public benefit corporation” in 2015. The leadership vowed to never take Kickstarter public and to measure the company’s success by how well it adheres to its values rather than how much money it makes. Many companies preach inclusivity and do-gooder saviorism while ultimately answering to shareholders and investors. Kickstarter, however, appeared to be walking the walk. Rather than spend resources skirting regulatory hurdles, the company fought for high-minded policies like net neutrality in 2014 and against the anti-trans North Carolina bathroom law in 2016. While there were certainly no ideological restrictions to Kickstarter projects, as long as they obeyed the terms of service, the company seemed to be defining itself as one of the most truly ethical places in tech.

Over the past year, a series of incidents convinced Kickstarter employees that they should have a bigger voice within the company. When staffers started talking about collectively organizing—even though no major tech company has yet to form a union—they thought that given its professed progressive bona fides, there was a good chance that Kickstarter wouldn’t put up roadblocks. They were wrong. In the months since workers announced their plans, employees say the company’s management has consistently pushed back against the “Kickstarter United” effort.

As Slate reported on Thursday, one of the main organizers of the union, Clarissa Redwine, was fired last Thursday—and five current and former employees with knowledge of the dismissal say that managers didn’t follow their normal procedure for a worker who is not meeting company standards, raising these employees’ suspicions that the dismissal was retaliation for her organizing efforts. On Thursday morning, another key union organizer, Taylor Moore, was dismissed, too, according to six company sources. The company told staff that Moore had been on a performance improvement plan. Kickstarter declined to comment on specific personnel issues and said that it has never fired anyone in connection with the union drive.

The union drive first went public in March, the same day the company announced that Aziz Hasan, the head of the design and product teams, took over as interim CEO from co-founder Perry Chen. In May, Hasan told the staff of about 150 that if the union asked for voluntary recognition from Kickstarter, the company would not grant it but that Kickstarter would respect the results of a secret vote by the staff on whether to unionize.

Kickstarter said it has “shared its views with staff in the interest of transparency and open discussion, and has in no way sought to impair the rights of staff members to organize.” I spoke to 14 current and former employees for this story, across multiple teams within the company, some of whom have been involved in the union-organizing effort and others who are not involved. Almost all of them asked not to be named because they were not permitted to talk about Kickstarter with the press. Most of them described feeling disappointed in a company that, they feel, hasn’t had its external ethos reflected within its internal culture. “Employees joining Kickstarter sometimes take a salary that is lower than market rate because they believe in Kickstarter’s mission and want to lend their labor to a meaningful cause,” a former employee told me. Kickstarter was supposed to be better than other tech companies. That’s why they worked there.

Kickstarter United’s concerns include several nuts-and-bolts workplace issues like salary equity, diversity in hiring, and wanting a seat at the table when it comes to company decisions. But their effort is also distinct from most union drives, since their other primary focus is ensuring Kickstarter’s stated communitarian mission is mirrored not only by its internal policies but by its business practices, too. “We all chose to work at Kickstarter because it was kind of an anti-capitalistic company to start out with, like with the collective funding structure and the public benefit corporation [status],” another former employee said.

If the drive succeeds, Kickstarter United would be the first white-collar union at a well-known tech company. In a sense, the organizing is of a piece with recent examples of tech employees agitating for their employers, like Google and Amazon, to cease activities that workers see as unethical. The question of how far a “don’t be evil” mantra can take a profit-seeking tech company with politically minded employees has given tech journalists material and executives headaches for years. But no tech company has seen a unionization effort go this far.

After years of awkward growing pains, things at Kickstarter seemed to finally feel settled by the summer of 2018. Then last August—one year after the deadly white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia—the far-right news site Breitbart published a story accusing Kickstarter of violating its terms of service, which bars projects that encourage violence, by approving a fundraiser for a comic book called Always Punch Nazis. The title referred to an incident in which the white nationalist leader Richard Spencer was clocked in the face during a television interview. The comic book creators described the project on Kickstarter as “A 44-page, comic book anthology about our country’s battle against racism. Join the fight with this satirical graphic novel.”

What happened over the next seven days rattled the Kickstarter staff. After the Breitbart article, the project had to be reviewed by Kickstarter’s Trust and Safety team, which audits whether disputed content violates the company’s community guidelines or is making other users unsafe. Because it was satirical, Always Punch Nazis may not have been a clear-cut case. According to multiple current and former employees, the Trust and Safety team initially decided not to act against Always Punch Nazis. But then management overruled the team, saying that Always Punch Nazis had to come down.

According to staffers, because the situation had become high profile, a member of the Trust and Safety team posted in a staffwide Slack channel that Always Punch Nazis would be canceled after all. Employees who felt the company was giving in to bigots were livid. Senior leadership called an emergency all-hands meeting that afternoon to hear staff concerns and explain that the company needed to consistently enforce its policies and that the project shouldn’t have been automatically approved in the first place.

Employees told me that there was vocal protest. One engineer stood up and said he couldn’t continue to work at a place that would give in to people trying to have a “both sides” debate about Nazis, according to multiple sources who were present at the meeting. Not all staff felt that the company was wrong to take the project down, but five sources present said it appeared the overwhelming majority did. Shortly thereafter, executives reversed their reversal.

In the weeks that followed, things got uglier. The employee who shared the content decision with the staff was pressured to resign, according to multiple sources familiar with the incident, and six workers said they believed it was because of her posting in Slack.* (That staffer declined to comment, and Kickstarter said, “Nobody was fired or threatened with termination in connection with this issue.”) Multiple former and current employees familiar with the incident told me that managers warned the Trust and Safety team not to question their decisions and that the general counsel of Kickstarter told employees on the team that New York is an “at will” employment state and they could be fired at any time.

Afraid that they would be dismissed next—and that they didn’t have enough leverage to pressure Kickstarter over ethical issues the next time there was a disagreement—employees started discussing a union. Since March, the organizers haven’t requested recognition from the company nor have they held a staff vote through the National Labor Relations Board. But the topic has been ever-present.

Throughout the summer, executives have explained in meetings why they think a union would be bad for Kickstarter—that it would be expensive, disruptive, and slow the company down. In some cases, these meetings were understood by workers to be mandatory—a practice known as “captive audience meetings” that labor organizers consider coercive—although the company says there were no consequences for not attending and these meetings weren’t compulsory.

At one point, Hasan told employees they should not “send repeated invitations, including via Slack, to meet during your working time or the working time of other employees for non-work matters.” This point about work hours left union organizers confused—Kickstarter employees told me that there’s a baseline culture at the company where, as with other workplaces in the tech sector, employees were encouraged to work in whatever way they would be most productive, even into the evenings or weekends, and people take breaks to talk about nonwork things, like sports or music, all day. Union organizers were unsure if there were clear boundaries for when they were and were not legally allowed to organize—even if, as Kickstarter said in a statement, most of the office works from about 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Another letter shared by the general counsel warned managers not to participate in the organizing effort, which he claimed would violate labor laws.

“These fireside chats and emails were celebrated as acts of radical transparency,” said Alex Kennedy, a former organizer with the Kickstarter union who quit working at the company in July. “But then the problems we raised were dismissed or recategorized as managers not doing a good job of communicating company policy.” She said management’s constant companywide messages about the union began to feel like an ambient reminder that the union drive wasn’t welcome and that organizers were misguided and angry. Kennedy left because she said managers used “sexist tropes” when she raised issues about pay equity, which made it feel clear to her that upper management “would not take any of my allegations of sexism seriously in the future.” Kennedy says she decided to join the union organizing effort after she learned that her starting salary was 10 percent less than that of her colleagues, despite being told that everyone on her team in her analyst role entered at the same pay level and that there was no room for negotiation. Kickstarter explained that it’s possible that Kennedy began work after a policy change was made to level all starting salaries on her team, which would have caused her compensation to be lower.

Not everyone on staff has been behind the union effort from the jump. On March 21, not long after the union was announced, an internal memo penned by Kickstarter staff was leaked to Gizmodo. The memo describes how, at the time, some employees felt hesitancy over how the formation of the union happened “behind closed doors” and were concerned that the union wouldn’t address issues that have stemmed from turnover in leadership and that unions are a better tool for more marginalized workers. Still, according to four sources, today the majority of nonmanagers at Kickstarter have pledged to join the union.

One of the main faces of Kickstarter United was Redwine, who was fired last week. An employee on the outreach team who had worked there since 2016, Redwine regularly signed emails from the union’s organizing committee that would be shared with staff. When she was fired, senior leadership told some staff that there had been issues related to her performance. But current and former employees with knowledge of the firing told me that management didn’t establish a “performance improvement plan” for Redwine, despite her being told she would have one. Several employees said that senior leadership had been watching Redwine with increased scrutiny for months and that she had been made aware of months of complaints against her including issues with her tone or ability to take criticism from management.

On Monday evening, Redwine and the Office and Professional Employees International Union (through which Kickstarter employees are organizing) filed an unfair labor charge with the National Labor Relations Board, alleging that the severance agreement offered to her by Kickstarter contained an illegally phrased nondisparagement clause. Kickstarter says it offers many opportunities for employees to address and correct performance issues, like through peer reviews, feedback, coaching, and mediation. It also said it offered Redwine the option to narrow the nondisparagement clause, but she never replied. “While the charge filed with the NLRB pertains specifically to the severance agreement I was presented with, I feel strongly that any agreement that treats severance as repayment for silence is an unethical one,” Redwine explained.

Taylor Moore, another core union organizer who was fired on Thursday morning, also worked on the outreach team and had been at the company for six years. He had previously been told he had to improve and completed a performance improvement plan, according to six sources at the company. Asked to comment on the firing, Kickstarter referred to earlier comments it had sent me in which it denied firing anyone for union activity.

Kickstarter’s altruistic image notwithstanding, it’s not a surprise that the company leadership would not want a union. Unions cost companies money to negotiate with, and a contract would place some constraints on their actions. And tech companies, in particular, have little experience with collective organizing, even as other white-collar fields, like journalism, have seen a boost in union activity in recent years.

The tech industry has traditionally prided itself on workplace flexibility and generous salaries. But that hasn’t exempted workers from mistreatment. There have been many documented examples of women in tech jobs getting paid less than men in the same role—in 2017, the Department of Labor even investigated Google for “systemic compensation disparities against women pretty much across the entire workforce.” The top tech companies have dismal diversity figures. Examples of employee movements with tech companies have also largely focused on pushing their employers to run more ethical enterprises. This week, Amazon employees pledged to walk out to protest the company’s funding of lobbying groups that deny global warming; Wayfair employees did the same this summer to protest the e-commerce company selling beds to a detention center for migrant children. And not all tech workers make six figures. Members of the Trust and Safety team at Kickstarter, according to multiple sources, earned salaries in the $50,000 range.

At this point, the standoff between Kickstarter’s union organizers and executives feels personal to the rank-and-file employees involved—but at a company that encourages workers to walk in the door with their whole selves, why wouldn’t it? The workers I spoke to told me that when management overruled the Trust and Safety team’s decision to leave up the Always Punch Nazis fundraiser, it felt like an assault on not only their personal belief systems but their sense of purpose at the company. For years, Kickstarter had asked its staff to feel good about working for a company dedicated to funding lots of good things. What will it do now that they say they don’t?

Correction, Sept. 14, 2019: This article originally misstated that the employee who alerted her colleagues about the status of the “Always Punch Nazis” comic book was fired. The employee was pressured to resign, multiple sources told Slate.