Feb 21, 2020

Kickstarter workers voted to unionize. It wasn’t about working conditions.

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Seeking a say in corporate decision-making, tech workers are looking for ways to wield influence.

Earlier this week, there was a surprising development in the tech industry: Employees of Kickstarter, a tech company, formed a union. This, of course, is happening while a lot of other tech employees are agitating at work. Some Google contract workers in Pittsburgh voted to form a union, Amazon warehouse workers have organized to protect their co-workers and gig workers have gone on strike.

But tech workers want more from their employers than the typical things that unions provide — decent hours, good wages and overtime pay. Tech workers might want to form or join unions, but they also want to disrupt them. I dig into this in “Quality Assurance,” the segment where I take a deeper look at a big tech story. I spoke with Megan McCarty Carino, who covers workplace issues at Marketplace, and I asked her my favorite question: On a scale of 1-10, how big a deal is this Kickstarter union? The following is an edited transcript of our conversation.

Meghan McCarty Carino: I would say it’s maybe like an eight. It’s really something very interesting to watch, because unlike what we talked about with the Google contractors unionizing, I think that was much more about the issues that we’re used to hearing unions deal with — these were contractors, they wanted to have equal pay and equal benefits compared to the full-time workers that they worked alongside at Google.

Wood: So you’re saying some of those things — these fuzzier, I guess, or culture issues — they are a part of this union, this contract. What do you think this means for the rest of the tech industry? How representative is Kickstarter when it comes to trying to replicate this success across the industry?

McCarty Carino: I think the representativeness of Kickstarter as a tech company is an interesting thing to look at. Of course, Kickstarter is in Brooklyn, it’s not in Silicon Valley. A couple years ago, it declared itself a public benefit corporation. However, I do think that the concerns that the union is going to be grappling with are pretty similar to some of the concerns that tech workers have voiced at other tech companies. To see the degree to which collective bargaining is able to really bring these issues to the table and bring a successful outcome that the workers feel satisfied with, I think other workers will be watching that.

Wood: So you’re saying it could go either way? They might look at it and say, “This looks great,” but the employees might also look at it and say, “That looks limiting”?

McCarty Carino: It could be a case where it looks like having a formal union and having a formal process to bring issues to the table with the employer is really useful, especially as we’re seeing cases at Google and cases at Amazon — employees being dismissed who have been linked to worker activism. Having the heft of a union behind you can sometimes help to clarify those dismissal processes and do conflict resolution in a way that feels more satisfying to the workers. However, there’s a lot of question marks still to be worked out about how a union is going to really deal with the issues that I think these specific workers want to deal with.

Related links: More insight from Molly Wood

The New York Times published a long piece earlier this week about employees who organized dissent, or literally tried to organize in the union way, and who have either left the company since or have been fired. Google and Kickstarter have both hired outside consultants who appear to specialize in tamping down union activity. 

The Hollywood Reporter had an interesting spin on the Kickstarter news. It points out that the kinds of things Kickstarter employees asked for from their unions are very similar to labor issues in Hollywood, which their unions have referred to as “creative rights.” The piece also quotes the Directors Guild of America and Writers Guild of America saying “we have a lot in common here” — talking about trust, transparency and a voice in decision-making. The DGA says that’s a fight that started in Hollywood in the 1930s. Great story.

Also watching

I’m taking your suggestions for names for this segment, which basically is about other headlines in tech news. Here goes:

Apparently, all that antitrust saber rattling is having an impact, and it might free you from the dreaded Apple Mail app. Bloomberg says Apple might just let people make third-party browsers and mail clients the default on their phones. Thus, making them work like they should have worked all along. Can’t wait.

Tesla’s attempts to build a giant factory to make batteries for nonpolluting electric cars and green solar power storage are on hold in Germany because environmental activists say that building the factory involves cutting down too many trees.

I’m only including this next story so that I can say that what happens in Vegas will almost certainly be stolen by Chinese hackers. We don’t know for sure that this hack originated in China, but someone hacked MGM Resorts last summer, and this week, they posted the personal details of 10 million guests online. The New York Times notes that hotel registration systems are a frequent target of state-sponsored hackers. The data dump included the phone number and address of a guy named Jack Dorsey — but again, unsure if it’s the one we’re all thinking of. 

Finally, some numbers from the world of venture capital. Although the stock market was bananas in 2019, the 159 companies that went public last year raised a low $33 billion total, down nearly 30% from 2018, according to data from Pitchbook. Obviously, those weren’t all tech startups, but some of the worst-performing initial public offerings were.

The team

Molly Wood Host
Jody Becker Interim Senior Producer
Stephanie Hughes Producer

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