Kickstarter Unionizes, With Goals That Echo Hollywood Guilds’ Creative Rights

Kickstarter employees win election to affiliate with the Office and Professional Employees International Union - Publicity-H 2020
Courtesy OPEIU

The employees want transparency and a voice in decisions, objectives that the directors and writers unions sought eight decades ago.

Technical employees at Kickstarter, the crowdfunding platform popular with film and music producers among others, have voted to unionize with the Office and Professional Employees International Union, the OPEIU said Tuesday. The 85-member bargaining unit will affiliate with OPEIU Local 153 in New York.

In a Hollywood twist, the employees’ goals were not primarily around wages, benefits or working conditions, the usual focus of labor organizing drives. Instead, their key issues resemble what the Directors Guild of America and Writers Guild of America term “creative rights.”

“The workplace issues that more than one year ago spurred the creation of the new union’s organizing committee, known as Kickstarter United (KSRU), are identical to the issues resonating with professionals throughout the unorganized tech industry,” the union said in a statement. “Kickstarter employees felt their employer, a public benefit corporation, should live up to the foundational progressive values it espouses by ensuring trust and transparency from management, guaranteeing equal pay for equal work, implementing more inclusive hiring practices and giving employees a voice in the decision-making process.”

Meanwhile, larger tech companies such as Google and Amazon have been embroiled in employee protests regarding defense contracting, performing work in China, free speech and other matters.

While the KSRU objectives are not traditional union goals, there is precedent dating back over 80 years for such an effort. Trust, transparency and a voice in decision-making were precisely the issues that led to the 1936 founding of the Screen Directors Guild, one of the predecessors of today’s DGA.

As a 2006 DGA Quarterly article put it, the issues driving the formation of the union were “more input into script development, casting and other aspects of preproduction; freedom from interference from micromanaging producers and studio executives; the right to be in the editing room and deliver their own cut of the film that would bear their name.”

Said the DGA’s then-national executive director, Jay D. Roth, “I think the issues that brought them together in 1935 are the same issues that directors deal with today. Those core issues are still here.” (Roth retired in 2017.)

Those rights, and many more, are protected today in the DGA collective bargaining agreements, under the rubric of creative rights, an area so central to the DGA’s mission that the union regularly updates a Creative Rights Handbook for members. And while the engineers, directors, analysts, designers, coordinators and customer support specialists and others at Kickstarter who are now unionized don’t occupy the same position as a film director, the principle — that professional stature brings with it a right to be meaningfully heard — is not dissimilar.

Of course, wages, residuals and benefits are always key issues as well, and even now the union and the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers are in negotiations over amendments to the master agreements in advance of a June 30 expiration, with streaming video residuals understood to be a major issue. But protecting creative rights, which don’t fall into traditional wage or working conditions buckets, remains a key focus of the DGA.

The WGA, too, has a set of creative rights it protects, albeit somewhat less muscular than the DGA’s, particularly in feature film. But a major focus for the WGA from the very beginning has been protecting writers’ credits, and the first Screen Writers Guild contract, signed in 1941, included credit protections, born of the necessity to counter studio abuses in awarding credits. Those credit provisions, vastly expanded and formalized today, are a core set of creative rights that would fit easily under the Kickstarter unionists’ heading “trust and transparency from management.” (The WGA is also seeking to enhance pay equity in its as-yet unscheduled negotiations this spring, an issue for the Kickstarter employees as well.)

And even SAG-AFTRA, whose members are guaranteed few creative rights, has contract provisions that exhort studios to cast projects with diversity in mind — just as Kickstarter employees are seeking “more inclusive hiring practices.” So although the Kickstarter union goals are groundbreaking for tech, in many ways Hollywood has already been there.

According to OPEIU, the company’s “initial response to the organizing drive was disappointing, [but] management ultimately refrained from any interference with the NLRB election process, ensuring employees were free to draw their own conclusions on the question of union membership.”

“Today we learned that in a 46 to 37 vote, our staff has decided to unionize,” said Kickstarter CEO Aziz Hasan in a statement to The Hollywood Reporter. “We support and respect this decision, and we are proud of the fair and democratic process that got us here. We’ve worked hard over the last decade to build a different kind of company, one that measures its success by how well it achieves its mission: helping to bring creative projects to life. Our mission has been common ground for everyone here during this process, and it will continue to guide us as we enter this new phase together.”

The union took a positive tone, as well.

“We believe unionizing provides a path toward furthering all of our goals,” said Oriana Leckert, a KSRU spokesperson who is a senior journalism outreach lead at the company. “It was truly an honor to get to have deep conversations with so many of my colleagues around these issues. Utilizing our collective power to improve our workplace and our professional lives will increase Kickstarter’s ability to have a radical, positive impact on society by allowing us all to advocate for workers’ rights, which is a core pillar of the fight against inequality.”

OPEIU also hailed the election as one of the first for tech companies.

“The tech sector represents a new frontier for union organizing, and OPEIU is excited to represent one of the first tech groups to successfully win collective bargaining rights and to be part of the labor movement’s efforts to improve the livelihoods of tech employees everywhere,” said Richard Lanigan, OPEIU president and OPEIU Local 153 business manager.

That depends on the definition of “tech.” The WGA East has had significant success organizing digital news outlets and represents over 1,000 creative professionals at Vox, Vice, HuffPost, The Intercept and elsewhere, as well as representing film and television writers east of the Mississippi.

Meanwhile, OPEIU — which represents 103,000 workers in such diverse occupations as podiatrists, registered nurses, clinical social workers, hypnotists, teachers, Minor League Baseball umpires and helicopter pilots — said it will now support the new members as they work “to create an inclusive and transparent process to determine the employees’ bargaining proposals and priorities.”

“Technical workers in the industry are put on a pedestal until they are no longer necessary, but every worker at a company makes it what it is,” said Dannel Jurado, a Kickstarter senior software engineer. “I’m overjoyed by this result. There’s a long road ahead of us, but it’s a first step to the sustainable future in tech that I and so many others want to see.”