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labor “A Union Is an Equalization of Power”

Taylor Moore was fired from Kickstarter for trying to unionize. We spoke to him about the crowdfunding company’s union-busting campaign, the promise of tech worker activism, and the importance of democracy in digital platforms.

M Prince Photography / Flickr

When US workers try to unionize, roughly a third of their employers engage in retaliatory firings. A union organizer today has a one-in-five to one-in-seven chance of losing their job while trying to secure the ability to bargain collectively.

Last month, the Office and Professional Employees International Union Local 153 filed a complaint with the National Labor Relations Board alleging that’s what happened to Taylor Moore and two of his coworkers when they tried to start a union at the crowdfunding tech company Kickstarter.

Jacobin’s Meagan Day spoke to Moore about why workers wanted to unionize Kickstarter in the first place (the conflict began in earnest with management capitulation to alt-right pressure), what happened in the process (classic union-busting tactics), and whether it was all worth it (it was).

Meagan Day (MD): Where did the idea to form a union at Kickstarter come from?

Taylor Moore (TM): Things had been really unpredictable and frustrating at Kickstarter for quite a long time, but the “Always Punch Nazis” fight was the straw that broke the camel’s back.

This was a little over a year ago, and at the time the main project of white nationalists and the alt right was deplatforming and public shaming of people they considered liberals, and they were having great success. They got James Gunn fired from a Disney franchise, they tried to get Sarah Silverman fired from Netflix, and sure enough Kickstarter was next in line.

They found a project on Kickstarter, an antifascist comic book called “Always Punch Nazis,” that was about a week away from being funded. It was going to respond to the tempest-in-a-teapot debate about whether or not it’s okay to punch fascists, which at the time was something on everyone’s mind. Breitbart saw it and said, “Hey Kickstarter, your guidelines forbid calls for violence against any other group of people, this is in violation of those guidelines and you should take it down.”

At Kickstarter we have a Trust & Safety team, sort of like the judicial branch. They decide when and how to apply our guidelines, especially to edge cases and controversial projects. They looked at “Always Punch Nazis” and said unanimously we should not cancel this project. But their manager came in and said “No, we are going to cancel it.” The lawyer sided with him, of course.

Most people at Kickstarter were very angry about this decision. I had never seen anything blow up like this internally, and I had been there for five years at the time. So the leadership decided to have an emergency all-hands meeting, and the whole company went to this big meeting room where the leadership said they were going to cancel this project. Then they opened it up for comments and questions, and the room stood up to them. It wasn’t unanimous, there were some employees that agreed with them, but it was very clear that there was a passionate majority of team members that thought this was an enormous mistake. I spoke up. Many other people spoke up.

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What I said was that the project may be satire, it may not be satire, I don’t think it matters. What matters is are we as a community going to make a decision that helps the white nationalists and the neo-Nazi press machine, or are we going to stand against it? Will our names be written down in history as people who helped their movement, or people who stood against what they were trying to do?

I was really angry. Many of us were. After that meeting was the first time I said the word “union.”

MD: How did that anger translate to actually beginning a unionization effort?

TM: So the next morning we get an email from management that says they changed their minds, they decided not to cancel the project. As frustrated as we had been with management, we felt like the right decision had been made. They did the right thing, and that was very respectable.

But within two weeks, the team that I was on was called toxic and we were told never to question management’s decisions again. Staff were reminded that New York is an at-will employment state and they could be fired at any time. Management even pushed out an employee who had posted about the project being canceled in Slack. They said, “We can’t trust you. We don’t see a future for you. We’re not going to fire you, but here’s the separation agreement.” They forced her out of the company.

That was just beyond the pale. I mean, number one, it was absurd that we had to defend the idea of not helping the alt-right. Number two, you can’t force someone out of the company for those reasons. It is wrong and unethical. The problem, of course, is that the people who were making those decisions were the same people we were ostensibly supposed to report our problems with management to. So we realized the only way these people could be brought to heel, the only way management would have any checks on their power or accountability, was if we created a new power, and it had to be a union.

It wasn’t just this incident. There are a lot of policies that aren’t written down anywhere, and benefits that aren’t guaranteed, that can be taken away in a heartbeat. There might be a severance policy, but there’s no one forcing them to adhere to it. Management can do anything, legal or illegal, and no one really has a mechanism for addressing that. This is the classic power imbalance that unions exist to correct. If you want a fair workplace, you have to fundamentally change the structure of power. And that’s what a union is. A union is an equalization of power.

It was very clear to us that we ought to be thinking about a union. But none of us had any experience. None of us knew what to do. So we started having the very first conversations and we got a small nucleus of people together, and we went out and we just researched as much as we could — everything from Googling late into the night to having very long meetings with professional organizers. We talked to old people, young people, people who are currently engaged in campaigns, people who had done it before. It was wonderful. And during all this time, while we were researching, we were having conversations with coworkers, talking about things that are going on in the company and how we can make them better.

We really felt that the clock was ticking. We thought that this was something that had to happen as soon as possible. We couldn’t just wait for someone else to save us. We realized, you know, there’s no one coming to save you. You have to look to the people next to you, hold hands with them, and work together, and that will save you.

As our numbers grew, our knowledge grew, and the network of professionals and experts that were advising us grew. And soon it became very clear that it was absolutely possible to build a union within the walls of Kickstarter, to shift the fundamental power imbalance that existed in some form everywhere.

There was a greater concern that was looming over my mind the entire time, which is that if all of human culture is going to be filtered through these digital platforms, it is stupid and wrong to leave those platforms undemocratic. It kept me awake at night, the idea that Kickstarter could become something like Facebook or Twitter, where we wear the mask of neutrality while engendering the right-wing radicalization of the country and the world. I absolutely would not stand for it.

MD: How did management respond to the unionization effort?

TM:  The biggest tragedy here is that they could have said “yes” on day one and everything would have been fine. There was no reasonable excuse for them to push back against the union so hard. But they hated it from the beginning. They really did. Even before we went public, the emails they were sending were very intentionally written to cast doubt and skepticism on the idea of the union and the reputation of people within the union, while being very careful not to appear to take a stance.

They sent company-wide emails that were intended to disabuse anyone in the company from thinking that the union was worth having. And once we went public, it was especially clear which side they were on. They said the negotiation process would be too expensive. They said that if they focused all their time on fighting the union, they wouldn’t have time and money to put into other projects.

Then they accused union organizers of racist and sexist harassment. They even said we were appropriating union culture.

MD: What does that mean, appropriating union culture? Were they implying that because you’re tech workers, unions aren’t meant for you?: 

TM:  Yes, which is something any white-collar worker will hear when they try to organize their office. But just because you have kombucha on tap and you get assigned a laptop at work, it doesn’t mean they’re going to treat you with dignity.

The most successful technique they had was that they intentionally created the illusion that there were two sides among employees. Any time you try to unionize a workplace, management’s always going to find some workers to be on what they call the “no committee.” They had staff members within the company write emails speaking out against the union, some of whom retracted it later. It’s a tried and true tactic.

Another thing they did was convince some people who had nobody working under them that they were technically management and couldn’t be part of the union. They were confusing workers, suggesting they were not allowed to take advantage of their right to organize the workplace. And that was very successful, because especially among our generation, people are really poorly educated about how unionization works.

MD: Eventually, you were fired. How did that happen?

TM: I can’t talk about the details of that specific part because I currently have a complaint going in front of the National Labor Relations Board. But I will say that the claims that we — me and two other people — were fired for performance are false.

MD: And all three of you who were fired were very involved in the unionization effort?

TM: Yes. it was well known. Our names were on the emails. I spoke up in public. We held union meetings at my recording studio around the corner from the office. I asked tough questions of management on multiple occasions. I was known as a union organizer, as were the other two people who were terminated.

MD: So you’re out of a job now.

TM: That’s correct. Clarissa Redwine, who was fired a few days before me, and I were the first two people to not sign the non-disclosure agreements [NDA] in exchange for severance.

MD: In a way this conversation you’re having with me is a little of part of the freedom that you chose in lieu of severance.

TM: Correct. The Kickstarter NDA included a non-disparagement clause, which would have not allowed us to speak publicly about the illegal and unethical union-busting campaign that the Kickstarter leadership is currently engaged in.

MD: Would you do it again?

TM: In a heartbeat. Or else what? Be a coward? Not ever doing anything that might have consequences or cause you hardship is an approach to life that will result in one thing, which is nothing.

It’s not just about Kickstarter. The unionization of the tech industry is something that must happen. These online platforms are too powerful and too important to be run as these paralegal, above-the-law institutions by the billionaire class. Whether or not we check their power is literally an existential question for civilization. Even if by some miracle we get someone in the executive branch who engages in a good-faith, energetic, anti-trust campaign against these companies, we’ve still got to unionize.

You can’t give conscience to people in power, but you can empower people of conscience. We have to, and if that means I lose my job, that is a small price to pay.

MD: Will the unionization effort at Kickstarter continue?

TM: Of course. We’re just three people. I’m very confident in my comrades.

[Taylor Moore is a former Kickstarter employee. Meagan Day is a staff writer at Jacobin.]