Kickstarter sets new goal for union activism

MARY REICHARD, HOST: Coming up next on The World and Everything in It: a first in union organizing in the tech industry.

NICK EICHER, HOST: Kickstarter is a crowdfunding tech company. It runs a website that lets people raise money for various projects and causes. It has about 145 employees at its Brooklyn, New York headquarters. And last month, those workers became the first white collar employees in the tech industry to unionize.

REICHARD: Typically when workers unionize, they want better bargaining power to get things like pay and benefits. 

But that’s not what motivated the Kickstarter employees. Their push to unionize started after a disagreement with management over what kinds of projects are allowed on the Kickstarter website. In other words, they think they deserve a say in company policy.

Joining us now to talk about that is Sarah Randow. She’s a history professor at LeTourneau University in Longview, Texas. Good morning, professor!

SARAH RANDOW, GUEST: Good morning!

REICHARD: Well, let’s start with a brief history of unions. When did they first show up and why?

RANDOW: Ok, the first time we see unions here in the United States is going to be after the Civil War, the latter half of the 19th century. We really do not see labor unions before the Civil War because of all the immigrant population coming in and it’s very hard to come together without that common language. What we really see after reconstruction the pop-up of understanding, well, our wages, our working conditions, something needs to change. So when we see the pop-up of the labor unions in the latter half of the 19th century, it really deals with working conditions.

REICHARD: Well, generally speaking, it seems that unions have lost some of their power and influence. I’m thinking of a Supreme Court decision in 2018 that said public sector unions couldn’t charge non-members dues, for example. Is it accurate to say unions’ are a lesser influence than they once were?

RANDOW: Yes, because I really think they are because when you look at the difference today, we have the working conditions—the 8-hour working day, we do get a fair wage—and so now the labor unions don’t have that influence over management, upper management and company owners like they used to.

REICHARD: The Kickstarter union is a first in the tech industry. But there are some similarities with unions in Hollywood. Or maybe the better word is guild. I don’t really know. I know creative rights issues enter into film industry union activism. Can you explain those?

RANDOW: So a guild is when you organize an association of people for mutual aid or pursuit of a common goal. And we see with the guilds, here, especially in Hollywood, you don’t allow people that aren’t working in Hollywood to be a member of the guild. So the guild is specifically for directors, makeup artists, hair—just anyone that deals with Hollywood. And usually you have to have certain requirements to be a member of the guild.

REICHARD: Would you say that the Hollywood situation has worked to get movie studios to change?

RANDOW: I did see that they did do some changes in especially who gets the credit after the movies. Before anyone that was a hairstylist, anyone that worked on sets, they did not get credit. And with the guild, they were able to get their individual credit after the movie as a thank you that these people worked on this movie. So I do say it was a success.

REICHARD: Kickstarter is small compared to major tech companies like Google and Facebook. But what if this unionizing trend spreads throughout the tech industry? Employees would influence things that affect all of us. Christians have reason to be concerned about censorship and free speech, for example. What does the history of unions tell us about the effect employee activism usually has on companies?

RANDOW: Usually the activism that you see from unions on a company has actually been in a negative. Historically, when labor unions try to do the collective bargaining and the management does not listen, we see strikes. And the strikes that happen usually do not get the results that they want. 

Looking at the goals of the Kickstarter union, kind of goes against—in my opinion—the goals of a labor union. 

So, they’re kind of spreading out to other areas that really don’t fall in under what you would think historically of a labor union. And they actually joined the local office of the Office of Professional Employees International Union. So they’re not an independent labor union. What looks like with this Kickstarter union they’re trying to drive policy instead of trying to help the workers out. They want their voice to be heard so they thought by unionizing, especially with the comic they were looking at—always punching Nazis—and so they’re looking at trying to drive policy by forcing upper management to listen. Which is kind of like a union, but it’s not the heart of a union.

REICHARD: Sarah Randow teaches history at LeTourneau University, a Christian polytechnic university in Texas. Thanks so much for joining us today.

RANDOW: Thank you. I appreciate it.


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