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Update: With the immense dissent accorded on Kickstarter since its union-busting move of firing two of its union organizing workers, many would have hoped the public-benefit corporation company to switch its stand. 

However, in an e-mail statement to CurrentAffairs on September 28th, Kickstarter’s CEO, Aziz Hasan, has made the company’s standpoint firm and clear. Hasan confirmed that Kickstarter is standing by its decision to fire the organizers and would be fighting the lawsuit filed by them with the National Labor Relations Board. He went on to confirm the company’s perspective of not voluntarily recognizing a union, even if the majority of its workers signed in support of a union. He also dubbed the union framework as “inherently adversarial”. Hassan also pledged not to remain neutral on unionization and said that Kickstarter would continue to actively oppose unionization efforts. 

After Kickstarter’s stand was made public on Twitter, many influential and past successful Kickstarter project initiators have openly pledged to boycott Kickstarter for future projects.

Update: Following the alleged union-busting move at Kickstarter, many workers around the world came out in support of the two fired employees.  

On September 24th, HCL employed 80 Google contract workers in Pittsburgh voted in favor of unionizing with the United Steel Workers (USW). They will now be working under the name Pittsburgh Association of Tech Professionals (PATP). Per Vice, the main aim of the union is to create an umbrella organization to facilitate organizing in the tech sector, and eventually to help tech locals coordinate and cooperate amongst themselves. According to Motherboard, HCL America’s deputy general manager of operations had also sent out emails, before the voting, to all the contractors in an attempt to prevent them from unionizing.

The vote to unionize is a historic movement among tech workers and will motivate others to come forward and form unions. Meredith Whittaker, ex-Google Walkout organizer, who had left Google over ethical concerns has come out in support of Google contractors unionizing.

The HCL workers have also expressed their solidarity with Kickstarter workers.

HCL America has not yet officially commented on its workers unionizing. Head over to Vice, for the full coverage on Google workers unionizing.

[dropcap]Past week[/dropcap] has been quite rough for many at Kickstarter, the American public-benefit corporation. Kickstarter fired two of its employees, Taylor Moore, Head of Comedy and Podcasts at Kickstarter and Clarissa Redwine, former Senior Design & Tech Outreach Lead at Kickstarter, citing performance issues.

Both workers have openly protested against Kickstarter on Twitter.

The workers have claimed that there has been no performance issues from their end and their dismissal is the result of their participation in the unionization effort within the company. In her own words, Redwine says, “Kickstarter’s management continues to state that I was fired for performance issues. I find this strange because I not only met but exceeded all performance metrics in Q2. I was great at my job. And I loved it.”

Moore also informed on Twitter that another prominent member of the proposed union (Kickstarter United) has also been asked to leave the firm by Kickstarter. These actions have of course garnered a lot of negative reactions for the company, with people tagging Kickstarter as a ‘union buster’.

Moore is now urging fellow Kickstarter staff members to unionize and sign petitions for exercising their right to a fair and equitable workplace.

Following all the furore, Kickstarter has said in a statement to engadget that if an employee fails to achieve the meeting expectations, they are bound to meet this treatment. The statement further reads, “Kickstarter has not fired or otherwise retaliated against anyone for union organizing. Obviously we knew how these terminations could be perceived. But it would be unfair to not hold these people to the same standards as the rest of our staff simply because they are union organizers.”

Read Also: Perry Chen, Kickstarter CEO steps down from his role in the middle of employees’ Unionization efforts

Per Slate, two days ago, the labor union working with employees at Kickstarter have filed a  charge with the National Labor Relations Board. The labor union have accused Kickstarter of wrongfully terminating Redwine and Moore. They have further alleged that “Kickstarter interfered with employees’ right to organize, since such firings could have a chilling effect on union efforts. Moore and Redwine are asking for back pay and to be reinstated to their positions. Next, the NLRB will ask the union to file an affidavit describing the charges, and the employer will have to respond.”

The labor union workers have called on Kickstarter project creators to express their solidarity with Kickstarter workers’ union and to condemn the company’s firings with a ‘Support of Unionizing Kickstarter Workers’ form. With 80 Kickstarter creators already signed up, the statement in support of the Kickstarter Union has already received lots of appreciation from the public on Twitter. One Kickstarter creator tweeted, “I owe my fine art career to Kickstarter. It is a site I love, and a site that changed my life. They need to recognize the union.  I signed this petition.” Kickstarter has not released a statement regarding the lawsuit yet.

Unfair treatment of protesting workers have always been the norm

Kickstarter has now joined the long list of firms like Google and Npm Inc who have opposed workers organizing to demand better treatment.

For workers, unions act as negotiators who can talk/protest on their behalf against unlawful working conditions like non-cash compensation, harassment, unbiased hiring, and other unfair labor practices. On the other hand, the employers’ will to maximize the company’s profit at the cost of the employer’s salary or time are received with resistance from trade unions. With such conflicting goals, it comes as no surprise that organizations will attempt to remove the organizers behind mass protests, in order to avoid such movements taking concrete shapes such as trade unions.

Another method used by firms is to issue demotion or an unplanned transfer, as experienced by Claire Stapleton and Meredith Whittaker, ex-Google employees. These developers played a major role in organizing an pan-Google Walkout in November last year, but had to quit Google eight months later, after facing retaliation for protesting against the company.

Read Also: Meredith Whittaker, Google Walkout organizer, and AI ethics researcher is leaving the company, adding to its brain-drain woes over ethical concerns

Read Also: Google Walkout organizer, Claire Stapleton resigns after facing retaliation from management

The organizers of the Google Walkout had laid five demands for change within the workplace.

  • An end to Forced Arbitration in cases of harassment and discrimination
  • A commitment to end pay and opportunity inequities
  • A publicly disclosed sexual harassment transparency report
  • A clear, uniform, and globally inclusive process for reporting sexual misconduct safely and anonymously
  • Elevate the Chief Diversity Officer to answer directly to the CEO

In April, NPM Inc, the company behind the widely used NPM JavaScript package repository dismissed 5 of its employees, allegedly for engaging in union organizing activities. The union organizers were protesting against the company’s profit prioritizing strategy at the expense of employees. According to a special report from The Register, the JavaScript package registry and NPM Inc were planning to fight union-busting complaints by firing staffers, rather than settling their claims.

Following all the unrest in the company, the Npm Inc. co-founder and Chief data officer, Laurie Voss, quit the company, in July. Voss’ s resignation came third in line after Rebecca Turner, former core contributor who resigned in March and Kat Marchan, former CLI and community architect also resigned from NPM the same month. Voss stated in his blog that he supports unions and added, “As far as the labor dispute goes, I will say that I have always supported unions, I think they’re great, and at no point in my time at NPM did anybody come to me proposing a union,” he said. “If they had, I would have been in favor of it. The whole thing was a total surprise to me.” This can be mostly true as employees tend not to talk to the management in the fear of retaliation.

Read Also: Npm Inc, after a third try, settles former employee claims, who were fired for being pro-union, The Register reports

Why is tech workers’ unionizing, a tipping point?

There has always been a debate around the need for unions in tech or rather if at all the industry needs one. Supporters of the latter are of the opinion that the tech industry does not need a union as this field is already doing well, in terms of money and safety for employees. Jeff Atwood, one of the co-founders of the stackoverflow.com responded to the Kickstarter story by commenting, “I will never understand the desire to “unionize” in tech. Why should rich people unionize? So they can get .. uh.. even more money?”

Lack of Pay Equity

A popular issue that employees, including those in tech, face is the pay equity issue, particularly for women. The current Equal Pay Act specifies that employers can’t differentiate salary based on gender (unless based on factors like seniority, merit, and work level). However, it was found that most  women were making far less money than male colleagues with the same experience and job titles. According to Vox, “women in the United States who work full time make, on an average, 82 cents for every dollar their male counterparts make.” After a series of attempts to make sure women and men are paid equally, Congress passed the Paycheck Fairness bill, in March this year. The Paycheck Fairness Act is intended to close all the loopholes in the current Equal Pay Act of 1963. It is now awaiting Senate approval post which the bill will become a law.

Need for safe working conditions

Job insecurity

However, fair pay is not the only reason unions exist. Two months ago, Amazon workers protested against their employers on its Prime day, calling for a safe work environment. According to a report by Verge, an attorney for Amazon confirmed that hundreds of employees at the Baltimore facility were terminated within a year for failing to meet productivity rates. The workers complained that Amazon gamifies and makes the productivity goals dynamic for its workers, which becomes unrealistic to achieve. They also demanded the company to take action against ease quotas, and make more temp employees permanent.

Toxic work culture

In April this year, Riot games employees had demonstrated a walkout in protest of the company’s sexist culture and lack of diversity. Riot games was put in the spotlight after many complaints by Riot workers on grounds of sexual harassment and discrimination faced at their workspace. In contrast the complaints and public outcry against Riot games did not fall on deaf ears, as Riot games settled the class-action lawsuit filed by their workers. The CEO of Riot Games said, “We are grateful for every Rioter who has come forward with their concerns and believe this resolution is fair for everyone involved.”

Unrealistic target demands and burnout

In January, the 2019 Game Developers Conference survey revealed that nearly 50% of game developers believed that the game industry workers should unionize to fight against unreal target demands and long working hours. Following which in February, the American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations (AFL-CIO) published an open letter to game developers, persuading them to unionize and voice support for fair treatment at work. The letter pointed out that workers are asked to submit to unrealistic targets with horrible work conditions, job instability, and inadequate pay.

Forced arbitration keeps the status quo

The Google Walkout not only pushed Google to take a stand against sexual assault but also inspired other companies to take the right steps in case of sensitive issues. Post the Google Walkout, Sundar Pichai, Chief Executive Officer of Google Inc. addressed these demands and listed some major changes that will be incorporated in Google.

Out of all the demands, forced arbitration was one of the most criticized and protested policies by the Google workers. Later in January, Google workers even launched an industry-wide awareness campaign to fight against it. The workers stated that the implementation of forced arbitration policy has grown significantly in the past seven years, with 65% of the companies consisting of 1,000 or more employees, now having mandatory arbitration procedures. Relenting to the demands, Google finally ended its forced arbitration policy for all it’s employees in February.

According to the forced arbitration policy, the employee is required to waive their right to sue, to participate in a class action lawsuit, or to appeal.

Following suit, Facebook also changed its policy of forced arbitration which required the employees to settle sexual harassment claims in private. This allows Facebook employees to take any of their sexual harassment complaints to a court of law.

It is safe to say that unionization in tech is of utmost importance, as only when a large group of protestors revolt together, the company is forced to change course, which otherwise would have gone unchallenged. Only structural changes such as worker unions that challenge the current power dynamics  can make a company’s “if they don’t like it they can leave” mentality change in the tech industry. With the tech industry playing fast and loose with laws and regulations, workers may be the only guardrail in keeping them accountable. Unions, for all their limitations and shortcomings, help protect workers against company retaliation. Unions are likely not the end goal, but a means to achieve a fairer and inclusive workplace, a more responsible business entity and a saner marketplace.

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