If you have a boss, you need a union

March 21, 2019 (1772 words) :: Kickstarter employees are trying to unionise, but some senior staff are claiming that a union doesn't make sense because they're too 'privileged'.
Tags: class-struggle, startups, working-in-tech

This post is day 80 of a personal challenge to write every day in 2019. See the other fragments, or sign up for my weekly newsletter.

Earlier this week, Kickstarter employees announced their plan to unionise with the Office and Professional Employees International Union, as reported in The Verge. If this succeeds, it’ll be a pretty major step for the growing labour movement in the tech industry, given Kickstarter’s profile as a fast-growing, VC-funded, US-based tech startup. (Lots of digital media outlets have unionised lately, but from what I can tell it’s mostly journalists in these efforts, whereas Kickstarter’s union would include those working on the product.)

Of course, success is by no means guaranteed. Having a union might be better for the workers - people generally don’t decide to unionise unless they really feel like they need to, especially in the tech industry - but management has its own interests to consider, and those interests are unlikely to be best served by recognising the union (at least, that’s how their reasoning usually seems to go). The company responded to The Verge’s reporting with a brief statement that ended in “we look forward to hearing more about our employees’ concerns”, which sounds like code for, “We are extremely unhappy about this potential uprising, and will do our best to crush it.”

And earlier today, an anti-union memo written by senior staffers leaked to the press: Leaked Memo Shows Kickstarter Senior Staffers Are Pushing Back Against Colleagues’ Union Efforts, by Bryan Menegus for Gizmodo. The letter only has three public signatories, and all have “Senior” in their titles, though one of them claims that none of them are in managerial roles. (Fair enough, given startup title inflation, but then why are you acting like management??)

Folks, it’s not a good memo. It is a truly stunning mix of condescension and naivety. The only thing that makes it bearable to read is Bryan Menegus’ commentary on it in the piece linked above:

[…] Howard, Nilaratna, and Thayer write in their memo that they “hope well-intentioned, good faith dialogue with executives and a specific list of issues from unsatisfied coworkers can get us to a better place […] before resorting to something as extreme as a union.” It’s unclear what about forming a union—a right enshrined in U.S. law since 1935—is believed to be extreme.


One of the more surprising statements in the memo is the claim that tech employees like those at Kickstarter have it too good to merit organizing. “Unions are historically intended to protect vulnerable members of society, and we feel the demographics of this union undermine this important function,” the memo states. “We’re concerned with the misappropriation of unions for use by privileged workers.” Organized labor does not necessarily have to make the paychecks of its members as its chief concern, and being that no major tech firm is unionized, Kickstarter would have the ability to set the tone of their union’s concerns. Other tech companies have recently rallied around causes like increased workforce diversity and an end to forced arbitration agreements.

(In case you were wondering, Gizmodo is indeed unionised. Nice side-effect of all the recent wave of organising among digital media outlets: more critical coverage of labour issues in the tech industry.)

My absolute favourite bit in the memo is at the very end:

We hope that by sending this email we’re providing more space for everyone to be an independent thinker, and do their homework on an important matter that affects all of us.

I actually audibly laughed when I read this. There’s something almost endearing about the idea that trotting out standard union-busting lines is somehow “providing more space for everyone to be an independent thinker” - it’s so blatantly disingenuous that you have to admire the audacity. You get the sense that the letter’s writers see themselves as independent-thinking, non-ideological, rational people, calmly stating the truth to the zealous ideologues who stupidly want a union. (As if “unions are not appropriate here” is not itself a highly ideological proposition?) It’s all very Ayn Rand.

The “do their homework” part is even better, because it implies that the ones who want to organise are just not educated enough on the topic, and if they did some more research they’d come to the conclusion that a union isn’t necessary. I would bet a ton of money that the workers pushing this campaign know way more about labour history than those opposing it.

Unions may not be a silver bullet, and US labour law is not very union-friendly at the moment, but they’re one of the few formalised structures available for workers to build collective power. Having a union is nearly always going to be better than not having a union, especially if you’re one of the workers who’s helped to make it happen. And unlike what the memo’s writers imply, there is no “misappropriation of unions” going on here - unions are designed to protect workers who don’t have enough power, and given that the very next point in the memo suggests “unstable management” as a reason, it sounds like these workers feel disempowered. In any case, it’s not like unions are a scarce resource or something. If more workplaces are unionised, especially at high-profile tech companies, then that normalises the idea of unionising in popular culture, which could lead to similar efforts in other companies and industries. (Plus, they’ll be paying dues to the Office and Professional Employees International Union.)

To be fair to the letter’s writers, they do seem to realise that unions are generally a good thing, useful for protecting marginalised workers; they just don’t seem to think a union would be useful at Kickstarter, because some workers get high pay and benefits. It’s basically saying these workers are greedy for wanting a union, because they’re already getting treated so well.

Well, look. The charitable interpretation is that the authors really do believe this: they genuinely do not understand how anyone who gets a “weekly catered lunch”, “25+ days of paid vacation” and “above-and-beyond industry standards for parental leave” could have any grievances best addressed through collective worker power. A couple of points here: one is that, as Bryan Menegus points out, the union could focus on issues other than the bread-and-butter stuff of wages/benefits. No company is completely free of workplace toxicity or management issues, and a union would mean having a supportive structure that employees can turn to (especially employees from marginalised backgrounds, who maybe feel less secure in their position in the company).

Another point is that the great “benefits” touted here may be good compared to non-tech jobs in the US, but that’s only because the US context is so skewed toward favouring capital over labour. Lots of countries have way more worker-friendly policies: a bunch of European countries (the Scandinavian countries, France, Austria) legislate 25 paid vacation days as a minimum. And the US is one of the only countries that does not require parental leave - most mandate several months of paid parental leave. It’s great that Kickstarter is providing benefits that it doesn’t legally have to, but it’s hardly something to brag about, given how common similar policies are in countries that have less of a “neoliberal hellscape” vibe. Plus, weekly catered lunch is equivalent to, what, a $10 meal every week, and one that means you don’t have to leave the office?

The fact that Kickstarter provides decent benefits compared to some other companies is not an argument against the need for a union at Kickstarter. If anything, it points to the need for unions at all these other companies. Having a secure and well-paying job should be thought of as a right, not a privilege - the bare minimum. This sort of “you’re too privileged for a union” reasoning is a weaponisation of negative solidarity in the extreme, meant to mark the malcontents as undeserving of sympathy merely because other people have it worse. Yes, ok, other people have it worse, but it’s not a zero-sum game; you can stand in solidarity with others while also seeking better conditions for yourself.

So the charitable interpretation is that the authors have a misguided understanding of the purpose that unions serve. Which is fair enough, given the markedly anti-union atmospheric turn in the US ever since Reagan broke the air traffic controllers’ strike in 1981. There’s a more sinister possible interpretation of this memo, which is that the authors know exactly what purpose unions serve - they’re just opposed to it.

After all, although building worker power is good for workers, it could be bad for management (by curtailing their ability to mistreat workers). And even if these senior staff do not publicly identify as management, they could still choose to side with management when divisions arise, as they appear to be doing in this memo.

I’ve written before about Erik Olin Wright’s concept of contradictory class location and how that could apply to tech workers, who are often given tons of reasons (financial, social, ideological) to think they’re not really workers - they get to pick which side they’re on, basically. In light of this, it’s interesting that the memo closes out with, “We empathize with people who are new employees at Kickstarter and anyone who might feel urged to “pick a side” without context or complete information.” Context is good! Learning about labour history is something we should all do! But you will have to pick a side eventually. Management might like to pretend that everyone’s all in it together, from entry-level employees to execs with 7-digit salaries, but when growth slows down or funding dries up, who’s going to be the first to go in layoffs? And who’s going to have a golden parachute even if the company fails?

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