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How a Tech Worker Fought Back from Being Fired as a Union Organiser

Clarissa Redwine joined Kickstarter as a Senior Design and Tech Outreach Lead in 2016. Three years laters, after her best quarter, she was fired for being one of the first union organisers of a tech company in US history.

This story is republished from The Tech Worker Handbook, a handbook dedicated to supporting tech workers who wish to whistleblow on their employers.

Monochrome Photo of Resist Signage
Photo saying “resist” via source

I grew up just north of Dallas, Texas, spending most of my time at pool parties, trading Pokémon cards at school lunches, and lazily exploring the neighborhood with pals.  When I went to college, I took every class under the sun, from microbiology to photography. It wasn’t until I started taking a class on entrepreneurship that I began to be really interested in bringing new ideas to life and learning how businesses and innovative communities could be supported. I gravitated toward social enterprises, asking people what they were working on and how others might help them. In my last few years at school, I co-founded a co-working space and hosted hackathons. But it was my first job out of college working at an accelerator where I got my real start in tech. A few years later, I got a chance to move out of the accelerator space into crowdfunding with a role at Kickstarter. Kickstarter seemed like the perfect fit: a company that blended crowdfunding and community to bring creative projects to life.

First Impressions of Kickstarter 

I started at Kickstarter in 2016 as Senior Design and Tech Outreach Lead for the West Coast.  Even before joining I had actually been an avid supporter of the Kickstarter community.  I had backed memorable Kickstarter campaigns and couldn’t wait to support the creators behind each project in a new way.  So, when I was offered a job at the company I had admired for years, I jumped at the opportunity.

After I was hired, I visited Kickstarter HQ in Greenpoint, Brooklyn. This new office was built to impress. It is a beautiful, huge space with giant columns and plants everywhere.  My first impression was of an open and busy atmosphere, full of people who were excited about the company mission.  I was immediately delighted but pretty intimidated. My perception entering that building was of a company that was incredibly creative, inspiring and nurturing.  Everyone seemed so committed to supporting great work. It felt like home.

What Prompted the Union Effort? 

I started at Kickstarter as the company’s first employee stationed on the West Coast.  Even as a remote employee who pretty much worked autonomously, I would still hear stories of some of the challenges workers were facing back at Kickstarter HQ. Unlike most of Kickstarter’s staff, I was not living in Brooklyn, New York when the union drive began. But I had been watching the effort bubble

Some broke down in tears as they described the way management had treated them, telling stories of pay disparity and racial discrimination.

The main union drive was sparked by a management decision to cancel the Kickstarter campaign for “Always Punch Nazis,” a satirical comic about anti-fascism.  The title referenced an incident during a television interview when a white nationalist leader, Richard Spencer, was punched in the face. It drew on the anti-fascist tactic of meeting violent hate groups with physical resistance. When the right-wing news outlet Breitbart picked up on the “Always Punch Nazis” crowdfunding campaign it published a story accusing Kickstarter of violating the platform’s own terms of service by approving a project that encouraged violence. 

How management responded to Breitbart’s criticism of the small project and of Kickstarter’s rules troubled a lot of workers. Before Breitbart ever got wind of this small comic book, Kickstarter’s Trust and Safety team had already determined that the comic was satirical and did not violate the guidelines. But suddenly management overruled this decision, dismissing objections from the Trust and Safety team. 

After management ignored their objections, the Trust and Safety team worked together to bring this situation to the attention of the rest of the company. The Slack message where this announcement was made began to balloon into a sprawling litany of scorn for management’s decision, prompting management to call an emergency all-hands meeting. The meeting was positioned as a space for discussion but immediately the atmosphere felt more like a courtroom with management sitting behind a large wooden table that stretched the length of the room. I called into the provided Zoom meeting link and strained to hear the heated dialogue between management and staff. After management refused to change their initial decision, one engineer stood up and said many people, including himself, felt that this decision went against the stated values of Kickstarter and that, if management cancelled this comic book project, many workers might have to leave. This gathering was one of the most impactful moments of collective action in Kickstarter’s history.  

Shortly after that meeting, the executives reversed their decision. However, quietly after announcing the reversal, management, HR, and the legal team approached all the workers who had participated at that meeting. The Trust and Safety team members who had helped kick off the collective action were “reminded” that according to New York employment laws they could be fired at any time.  In fact, the person who had flagged the decision by management to overrule the original Trust and Safety Team decision was forced to resign. After this event, many workers were convinced that management’s dismissiveness and disrespect toward this team was due to fact that it was made up primarily of women, people of color, and people who identified as transgender and queer. This obvious retaliation for speaking up created an increasingly tense atmosphere at Kickstarter and set the stage for a union drive.

The illusion I had of Kickstarter as a progressive company that cared about workers and the larger community started to shatter.

Soon after these events, my co-workers invited me to a secret remote call to talk things through; people spoke of the retaliation they had experienced at the company. Some broke down in tears as  they described the way management had treated them, telling stories of pay disparity and racial discrimination. The illusion I had of Kickstarter as a progressive company that cared about workers and the larger community started to shatter. After hearing about the widespread retaliation effort from management, it was clear to me that Kickstarter did not have employees’ best interests at heart.

A co-worker who later became very involved in the union drive, had sent a note a couple months before the “Always Punch Nazis” incident asking for HR to bring back an anonymous reporting tool for staff to report issues such as harassment. After the offsite meeting I forwarded that email again to the entire company to bring it back up for discussion. I explained that because the current environment was very challenging, I thought employees needed an anonymous reporting tool now more than ever. HR replied to me and the entire company with a simple refusal to reinstate the tool.  It seemed then that this was not really a case of a system that needed to be improved, but rather a problem with the way the system was deliberately designed to ensure staff had little voice in the company.  Workers were beginning to see the intention behind Kickstarter’s power structure.  

Joining the Union Effort

That was the moment when I knew things needed to change but I had no idea what a path forward could look like.  Luckily, a few of my co-workers were thinking the same thing and a couple had organizing experience.  Shortly after my email to HR about the anonymous reporting tool, I got a call from Taylor, another co-worker on Kickstarter’s outreach team. After a bit of small talk, he just started to name a lot of the problems that we all knew existed at Kickstarter. He explicitly related these problems to the way that leadership was structured at Kickstarter, and how all the power was centered in the hands of a half-dozen people at the top. He started to build a case for structural change.  And then he told me that he and others were thinking about forming a union and wanted to know what I thought. 

At first, I was hesitant. 

I told Taylor I didn’t know if I could take on the risk. I was getting ready to move across the country. I was going to stop being remote and was about to start working at Kickstarter HQ in Brooklyn, uprooting my life in California to make the jump to the east coast with my partner. At that moment, my life felt precarious in a lot of ways.  But the next morning I texted Taylor to let him know I was in!

Retaliation

By the end of January 2019 the union drive was picking up steam. Organizers had aligned themselves with the Office Professional Employees International Union (OPEIU) and our quiet outreach to new members was gaining momentum. After I found an apartment in Brooklyn, I started joining union meetings in person. Shortly after that, I was invited to join the Organizing Committee. Just weeks after becoming a more visible member of the union drive, my new manager started to attack my character, my work, and torpedo my career. She began to systematically remove every major responsibility I had.  She gave no other reason except that she wanted to streamline the work.  I was trying hard to comply with every request she made, and to follow her directions, but it seemed there was nothing I could do to please her and regain some of my autonomy. I could feel my confidence slipping and I felt trapped. And I wasn’t the only organizer feeling the pain of retaliation.

Just weeks after becoming a more visible member of the union drive, my new manager started to attack my character, my work, and torpedo my career.

I look back now and realize that no matter how much we learned about what a union drive is like, we were not immune to the confusion and stress that is naturally caused when you are made to feel you are not meeting the expectations of managers, or that colleagues dislike you.  We knew these tensions could happen in a union drive but experiencing the emotional toll directly was different. We were still engineers and workers trying to do a good job. I definitely wasn’t prepared. Not only did I experience retaliation from my manager, I started to experience open hostility from co-workers who were against the union. I overheard some people speaking about how horrible I was to work with at a sponsored company lunch, for example. This was the first time that anything like that had ever happened in my career. These were not even people I worked with or who had ever interacted with me and yet they felt justified in speaking badly about me in a very visible way. It was a level of confidence borne out of the anti-union climate within the walls of Kickstarter. For the first time in my life I felt like people were expecting me to fail from the jump. It was so hard to walk into that office day after day. 

This is a very common tactic in union drives, painting union organizers and union members as lazy or bad at their job as the reason why they want to have a union — to protect them and other “bad workers” like them. Just a few months prior to the union drive starting in earnest, I had been promoted and was told that I would mentor other people at the company. I moved to Kickstarter HQ because I believed in the company. Going from a position of strength, where I knew my team had confidence in me, to feeling undermined on a daily basis by anti-union colleagues, who along with the skeptics represented almost half the company, created a lot of anxiety. I started having panic attacks prior to team meetings and even just sitting at my desk I would feel a heightened level of stress. My heart would race for a really long time for no obvious reason. Even getting a slightly blunt Slack message could fill me with panic.

Despite the great support we got from our OPEIU representative who helped “inoculate” and prepare us for possible retaliation from management, I can see how ill-prepared I was for the dangers of just being a visible union organizer. It is illegal to retaliate against people who are organizing a union but there are so many ways for companies to get around it and that includes supporting staff who are openly anti-union and rewarding them for making the office difficult for pro union staff. We were targeted individually in ways we didn’t expect. For women, there was a lot of criticism related to our “tone” and focused criticism of our work that was full of “personality feedback.”  Management was pitting us against each other, and that tactic was very effective. We were working hard to talk to our co-workers clearly and respectfully and to let them ask us questions about the value that a union at Kickstarter could have for them. But once people start thinking in adversarial terms and it becomes “us” versus “them,” it is much harder to persuade someone who is anti-union to consider joining.

Getting Fired for Organizing

My relations with management continued to deteriorate despite the fact that I was exceeding all my targets.  I was getting “personality feedback” that I was “failing to build trust with management” and that I was “not a team player.” Finally, out of desperation, I decided to ask for a Performance Improvement Plan as a way to quantifiably address their concerns and prove that I was good at my job. I think I also wanted to prove to myself that management’s issues with me were entirely down to their reaction to my involvement in the union drive. 

One day, during a team meeting call, a co-worker suggested we all meet in person, something we traditionally did every quarter.  I said I thought that was a great idea and seconded the idea. A couple of days later I got a long email from my manager stating my behavior had been inappropriate and that it was her job to suggest team meetings. She said I had manipulated my co-worker behind her back into suggesting the in-person quarterly. I replied that this was simply untrue and asked what I could have done differently in that situation. I never heard from her again. Instead, her boss jumped into the thread and accused me again of failing to build trust with my managers.

This false accusation about a very small incident was used to fire me.

It was clear Kickstarter was trying to bust the union by firing some of the most visible organisers.

A few days later I was called to a meeting with my boss’s boss and the head of HR. But even before I was called into the room, I knew what was going to happen. In fact, I had already cleared out my desk.  Taylor was fired a couple of days later. Then we heard that management planned to fire Trav, a third organizer. It was clear management had decided to fire people all at once to avoid multiple press cycles. In my termination meeting, they repeated what they had said before, that I was being let go because they felt I had failed to build trust with management and that I was not a team player. I had been at Kickstarter for almost four years, and until I became a union organizer I had received notable praise for my work. When I reminded them I had never received the Performance Improvement Plan I had asked for, they said it didn’t matter. Then they offered me one month’s severance. 

Whistleblowing — Leveraging Public Support

We knew it was time to mobilize. Taylor, Trav, and I had a combined tenure of 15 years at the company.  It was clear Kickstarter was trying to bust the union by firing some of the most visible organizers. Up until this point, the union organizing committee had held to a media blackout policy. But now we knew it was time to leverage public support and blow the whistle on what was happening at Kickstarter. Together, we came up with a plan. The three organizers who were fired would file complaints with the National Labour Relations Board (NLRB).

The union agreed that Taylor and I should tweet out stories before management had time to fire anyone else.  We had been holding the company to account as best we could internally; now we were blowing the whistle publicly.  I went first, tweeting:

Photo credit: Clarissa Redwine

This simple tweet was meant to be an opening move. A threat of more to come that might be able to slow Kickstarter’s union organizer firing spree. Then Taylor tweeted that he had also been fired for organizing.  While it was too late for us, the real aim of getting some public attention was to stop Kickstarter from firing Trav.  We wanted him to be able to continue the union effort for as long as possible and to be able to negotiate leaving on better terms. He had worked at the company for five years and was an incredibly effective engineer and union organizer.

It felt like the whole world was watching Kickstarter.

Our tweets were trending as Trav walked into his first meeting with management. Instead of firing him like they did Taylor and me, they said, “Let’s have a conversation.” More and more press piled on to the story and reports of management’s anti-union activity were quickly appearing in every major newspaper. By the time Trav walked back into a second meeting with HR and management a few days later to discuss the terms of his termination he had substantial leverage.  When Taylor and I blew the whistle on being fired, we generated a huge wave of public outrage. It felt like the whole world was watching Kickstarter.

Photo Credit: Clarissa Redwine

We were still trying to organize a union drive. Public pressure ensured greater accountability for how the company behaved, but at the same time the public support was unpredictable and out of our hands. Staff who were already anti-union thought that by going public, union organizers were hurting the company. Some anti-union workers railed against those who were fired, suggesting we deserved it. That was tough. 

It is hard to believe but eventually, after months of slow, painful organizing, we had the union election, and we won. Many of us had ended up putting our jobs on the line for something we believed in and then one day, there we all were sitting down at the NLRB offices watching as each vote was pulled out of the ballot box and counted. It was incredibly nerve-wracking. At one point, it dawned on us that we actually won. The shock and delight in the room was palpable. On February 18, 2020, Kickstarter workers were a recognized union! 

Photo Credit: Clarissa Redwine

Aftermath of Blowing the Whistle 

I have now had a bit of time to think about what happened. I am a naturally optimistic person and I can see that it took me a while to believe that management wouldn’t see the light and support a voluntary union. There are definitely some things I would have done differently had I understood better how power works in a company and some of the likely consequences of challenging that power. First of all, whistleblowers need to keep in mind that no one person is safe from those who wish to retain power. No single individual is bulletproof, no matter how good you are at your job.  High performance is not enough to escape retaliation. The mindset I had going into the union drive was that, if I could exceed all my metrics and do my job really well, then nothing bad could happen to me. That was not true, and I had to learn that lesson the hard way. 

What really helped was getting good legal and practical advice about union organizing and to start documenting everything early on, even the small acts of retaliation that seemed small or petty. It’s all part of a larger pattern that can only be revealed if well documented from the start. But it is also important to get advice about how to move forward. I think things could have worked out differently if I had asked OPEIU for legal representation in some of the disciplinary meetings I had with management. The company would have known that none of us were messing around and that we recognized management’s conduct as retaliation. 

That said, the documenting we did of all the meetings we had with management, individually and collectively was one of the most vital acts we did as union organizers.  New York is one of the US states that allows individuals to record meetings with other people without seeking consent first. These recordings were essential in helping us make claims to the NLRB after we were fired.

I can see the great potential the tech industry has to be worker-empowered and how it is possible to build that future.

Now that I have had a bit of time to reflect on my time at Kickstarter and my whistleblowing journey, I recognize the lasting impact it has had on me. As part of the union organizing committee, I felt I was part of something bigger than myself and that was vitally important. I cannot imagine what it would be like to try to blow the whistle alone. But even with the support I had, the gaslighting by managers and the emotional turmoil I experienced as an individual and as a professional has left me deeply anxious in ways I never thought possible. It feels like social situations large and small are super high stakes and I can’t escape that feeling of people expecting me to fail. Ever since my name and the words “fired” and “union” appeared together in every major online newspaper, applying for work has been such a scary task. I’m honestly not sure if I will ever be able to work in tech again, and I’m not sure I want to.

Yet this incredible journey has allowed me to educate others about what it is like to try to unionize.  As a Fellow at the Engelberg Center on Innovation Law and Policy at NYU’s School of Law, I wrote, hosted and produced a 10-part podcast series called the “Kickstarter Union Oral History.”  I explored with my colleagues how the union drive started, the challenges we faced and the aftermath of forming the very first tech union in the United States.

I look at tech through such a different lens now. The problems we faced at Kickstarter are not new. They exist across the tech industry and in every industry and in every organization that has hierarchical power structures.  But I haven’t completely lost my optimism; I can see the great potential the tech industry has to be worker-empowered and how it is possible to build that future. Before I actually did the hard work to organize with my colleagues and blew the whistle, it was all just a dreamy idea to me.  Now I can see the green shoots popping up everywhere as union drives are happening across tech.  Some won’t be successful, but I hope many will be.