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Could historic Kickstarter union vote unleash domino effect in tech?

After a narrow vote, activist employees set their sights on the rest of an industry built on an individualist ethos.

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Clarissa Redwine (pictured) and former colleague Taylor Moore say Kickstarter fired them for union organizing, a claim the company denies.

Photo: Yana Paskova/The Washington Post via Getty Images

Now that the tech industry has its first union, companies built on lavish perks and an individualist ethos must navigate a new phase in a widespread labor reckoning.

Tuesday's announcement that employees of New York-based crowdfunding firm Kickstarter will move forward with high-tech's first collective bargaining process for full-time employees came after more than two years of worker protests roiled the industry. Kickstarter employees pursued an old-school union drive, even as more unconventional tech labor groups are popping up in Silicon Valley and beyond.

"This is the future," said Clarissa Redwine, a former Kickstarter employee who was fired during the union drive over what the company says were performance issues and she maintains was retaliation. "Tech is organizing."

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The 46-37 vote to unionize Kickstarter took place last month but was officially tallied Tuesday in a small, windowless room at the National Labor Relations Board in New York in front of about 30 people. Among those in the audience were Redwine and another worker fired during the union drive that started in the summer of 2018.

A Kickstarter spokesperson said the company will move forward with bargaining a contract, though when that will happen is not yet clear. The company said it has not retaliated against pro-union workers, has supported employee efforts to decide if a union could be beneficial, and cooperated with organizers ahead of last month's vote.

"We support and respect this decision, and we are proud of the fair and democratic process that got us here," Kickstarter CEO Aziz Hasan said in a statement.

Taylor Moore, a six-year veteran of Kickstarter who was a central organizer of the union effort, was fired in September with one month of severance. Kickstarter said that, as with Redwine, his advocacy was not a factor. Moore said he was fired after working his way up from a receptionist to the company's lead for outreach on comedy and podcasts, and after receiving positive performance reviews

"It's hard to describe the feeling," Moore said of the vote. "It was absolutely all worth it."

The Kickstarter union drive is the clearest example to date of white-collar tech workers buying into organized labor. Other successful tech worker campaigns have been more issue-specific, such as the Google walkout that saw organizers pressure the company to end forced arbitration.

At Amazon, CEO Jeff Bezos announced Monday that he would invest $10 billion in fighting climate change after hundreds of employees criticized the company for what they called its "moral" failure on the issue. Unconventional cross-company labor groups have also bubbled up, such as the Tech Workers Coalition.

Established unions have more often targeted blue-collar tech workers, like private commuter bus drivers (through the Teamsters union) and contract cafeteria workers at Google (through Unite Here). Another active area for organizing: gig-economy workers thrust into the spotlight by new regulations like California's Assembly Bill 5, who are now represented by groups including Gig Workers Rising and Rideshare Drivers United.

Redwine said she cried as the Kickstarter votes were tallied. Since she was fired, she has used her former employer's platform to fundraise for a "Solidarity Onboarding" kit to educate other tech workers about the process of forming a union. Moore said education is the most daunting obstacle for labor organizers in tech, since many workers are unfamiliar with how tactics like collective bargaining could translate to their industry.

"The biggest obstacle is that my generation just doesn't know enough about unions," Moore said.

There isn't much history in the tech industry for them to look back on. As far back as Silicon Valley's microchip boom of the 1980s, academics at Cornell wrote that the industry employed "a sophisticated mixture of paternalism and repression" to defeat the "vast majority" of unionization efforts. In 1986, about 90 of the 1,900 companies that belonged to the American Electronics Association had union contracts.

But tech has morphed into a much bigger and more dispersed industry. Even labor advocates concede it's not clear-cut how unions that formed around traditional 9-to-5 employment can best contribute to tech companies that sometimes change business models overnight and position themselves as staunchly anti-bureaucracy.

And when unions have won concessions, such as raising commuter bus driver pay from as low as $14 an hour to an average of around $30, work conditions can still be complicated by broader factors like the bruising economics of life in a tech hub.

"They get overtime, they get holidays, they get sick leave," said Rome Aloise, a vice president with the International Brotherhood of Teamsters. "But most of them can't afford to live anywhere near where they're driving."

Employees of Kickstarter will be represented by the Office and Professional Employees International Union Local 153, which dates to 1945. Prior to the vote, employee group Kickstarter United outlined concerns including achieving pay equity, diversity and a voice in how the company pursues its somewhat "anti-capitalistic" founding ideals, employees told Slate.

In a statement, the union said the Kickstarter employees who voted included engineers, analysts, designers and customer support specialists — jobs that fall outside unions' traditional base of manufacturing, service and trade workers. "The tech sector represents a new frontier for union organizing," OPEIU President Richard Lanigan said.

The Kickstarter union effort will also test the legal recourse for workers who have advocated for unions, since both Moore and Redwine have sued the company over their firings. In the meantime, Moore plans to stay busy.

"I'm going to go and try to organize some other companies," he said.

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