How Kickstarter Employees Formed a Union

On February 18 earlier this year, Camilla Zhang wore a dress to work, one that made her feel particularly confident. She needed some confidence: That day was the culmination of more than a year of hard work trying to convince her coworkers at Kickstarter to form a union. Zhang, who worked at the crowdfunding site for artists and other creators recruiting new projects for its outreach team, joined about two dozen of her fellow organizers to go from the Kickstarter office in Greenpoint, Brooklyn, to the National Labor Relations Board regional office in lower Manhattan. When they arrived, they found a sealed box full of votes. An NLRB representative cut it open and read out the votes one by one, yes or no.
Zhang had brought a notebook to try to tally the votes as they were read, but her pen kept slipping because her hands were so sweaty. Oriana Leckert, another member of Kickstarter’s outreach team, whose bouncy curls match her ebullience and enthusiasm, tried to count along but lost track. So she focused on coworkers’ faces to figure out whether they had prevailed. The room was tense. At some points the vote was tied; at others, the no votes seemed to have it. “What a roller coaster of a 30 minutes,” recalls Dannel Jurado, another employee who was also in the room.
Then the one person who had been able to keep up with the tally abruptly raised his head. “I was like, ‘Oh my god, we have it,’” Leckert recalls.Kickstarter employees had pulled off something historic: They were the first white-collar technology workforce to unionize in US history. It took hard work—some of it straight out of the traditional labor playbook, some of it adapted to a new style of work. And it’s already creating a ripple of change throughout the industry.So far, another tech company—Glitch—has followed in their footsteps. (Members of WIRED’s staff, though not part of the technology industry, announced on April 22 that they were forming a union.) Public demonstrations of dissent at major tech companies like Amazon and Google have sparked whispers that the outrage could turn into unionization campaigns there as well. By paving the way and showing what it takes to unionize white-collar tech workers—and eventually, possibly securing a precedent-setting contract—Kickstarter employees hope they’ve started a trend in an area previously untouched by unionization. The move also tackles not just issues of pay and benefits, but how employees can have more power over what they produce.
Kickstarter is known as one of the more progressive tech firms: It took the early and unusual step of reincorporating as a public benefit corporation in 2015—a structure that takes into account not only the financial needs of shareholders, but also those of employees, the broader community, and the environment. Employees describe an open and generally flat culture.But when Perry Chen, one of the site’s three cofounders, who had left at the end of 2013, came back to the CEO job in 2017, a period of turmoil began. Fifty people left. Employees told BuzzFeed in 2018 that he made a number of decisions single-handedly, such as scrapping new features or project timelines and forcing people out, under the belief that as a founder, he alone had the vision to guide the company’s future. “Perry came back and just destroyed the culture, pushed out a lot of really good people,” says Taylor Moore, a former employee who worked at the company on the outreach team at the time and was part of the first group of employees who decided to organize a union. “It just really, really tore apart a lot of the good work that the company was doing.”