It didn’t take Nathan J. Robinson long to realize that Kickstarter’s resistance to a staff union posed a major problem for his young publication.
Robinson is the editor of Current Affairs, a lefty politics-and-arts magazine that launched in 2015 after a successful Kickstarter campaign brought in $16,000. Although most of the magazine’s revenue now comes from subscriptions, Current Affairs still relies on the Kickstarter platform to raise funds and expand its coverage.
As a supporter of workers’ rights, Robinson was dismayed to learn about the turmoil inside Kickstarter. More to the point, so were his donors. After Slate and HuffPost reported earlier this week that Kickstarter had fired two staffers who happened to be union organizers, Robinson started receiving concerned emails from his magazine’s funders.
After all, Kickstarter takes a cut of any money Current Affairs and other “project creators” can raise.
“It’s toxic now,” Robinson told HuffPost. “People are saying, ‘I don’t want my money going to a union-busting company.’ What am I going to say to them?”
Current Affairs joined two other publications, Protean Magazine and Pinko Magazine, in releasing a statement Friday calling on Kickstarter to “respect the unionization effort and and cease all illegal retaliation.”
“Some of us have worked with Kickstarter before, and would hope to work with Kickstarter again in the future,” they wrote. “But it is impossible to partner with a company that does not respect its workers and is not willing to honor their rights.”
The Kickstarter case makes for an interesting twist on union campaigns in the tech world. These days, when web-based companies don’t welcome a union, lefty Twitter piles into their mentions to call them scabs and post rat photos. Sometimes the shame campaigns force the companies to relent and open the door to a union; sometimes they buckle down and try to ride out the public-relations damage.
But in Kickstarter’s case, the company’s position could easily hurt its bottom line. It takes a 5% cut of the money raised on its platform (payment processing fees are separate). As Robinson said of the creators, “We’re the entire reason the company has money.” So what happens if Current Affairs and other like-minded entities feel compelled to flee the platform?
“People are saying, ‘I don’t want my money going to a union-busting company.’”
The letter spearheaded by the magazines had attracted nearly 30 co-signatories as of Saturday afternoon. Plenty of the projects named on the letter have raised relatively small amounts on the platform, but other hauls are significant. One signee is Sara Edwards of Pakt Coffee Kit, which has brought in nearly $300,000 on Kickstarter.
Kickstarter said in a statement to HuffPost that while it respects the creators signed on to the letter, their statement is “a response to allegations that are false.” The company denied it had fired anyone for organizing, and said 14 of 15 open union supporters eligible for a recent merit raise received one.
“Kickstarter’s leadership has gone above and beyond what is required of them to give the staff the space it needs to work this out amongst themselves,” the company said. “Six months after the organizing effort was announced, there appears to be no consensus among the staff that a union is the right path forward. The company’s leadership will fully respect whatever decision they reach.”
The company accused the fired workers of trying to “spin this up into something that it is not.”
A group of Kickstarter employees announced their intention to unionize back in March, in an effort they said was meant ”to promote our collective values, and ensure Kickstarter is around for the long haul.” Unions are scarce in the tech world. The company said it would not voluntarily recognize one formed by the staff, opting instead for a secret-ballot election. While the company has maintained that it is not trying to block the union effort, its CEO, Aziz Hasan, told the staff he does not want a union at Kickstarter, according to an email obtained by The Verge.
The union has not yet filed a petition for an election, so it’s likely support isn’t clear enough to guarantee the union would win. Union supporters would need a simple majority to successfully unionize.
HuffPost spoke earlier this week to Clarissa Redwine, a former Kickstarter employee who claimed she was fired last week due to her organizing efforts. (Kickstarter said it terminated Redwine for performance issues, though Redwine says she had been hitting her marks in performance reviews.) Slate reported that a second union organizer at the company, Taylor Moore, had been fired this week as well.
“I was one of the open, public-facing union organizers at Kickstarter,” Redwine told HuffPost.
The union seeking to represent them, the Office and Professional Employees International Union, filed an unfair labor practice charge on Redwine’s behalf. The agreement Redwine was expected to sign in order to receive severance, the union argued, was so broad as to violate the law. The union also maintains that the company has held meetings in which managers try to dissuade employees from unionizing.
Robinson, of Current Affairs, said he would rather be editing his magazine and raising money for it than helping lead a campaign against Kickstarter. But he feels the situation has left him little choice. His magazine, which now boasts an office in New Orleans and a small paid staff, has no investors or advertisers to rely on, just subscriptions and crowdfunding.
While the union has not called for a boycott of Kickstarter, Robinson said he would oblige if they asked. Regardless, Kickstarter may end up facing what he called a “de facto boycott” anyway, if it becomes harder for him and others to raise money there due to the union controversy.
Current Affairs has roughly three weeks left to go on a Kickstarter campaign that so far has raised nearly $60,000. For Robinson, the supporters who gave that money shouldn’t have to feel conflicted about it. The first step for Kickstarter, he said, should be to rehire Redwine and Moore.
“It’s clear that it’s a company that doesn’t share our principles,” he said. “We’re only a small project in the scale of what Kickstarter does. But if we can get the creators together, we really can lay down some terms.”