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Kickstarter Workers Kick Off a Union Organizing Drive; NPM Allegedly Fires Engineers for Organizing Efforts

Just a year after Lanetix fired 14 engineers for union organizing, tech workers lead two more unionization efforts

3 min read
Illustration of entwined hands
Illustration: Davor Pavelic/Getty Images

In January of 2018, Lanetix, a company that creates cloud-based tools for the shipping and transportation industry, fired 14 engineers shortly after they petitioned to be represented by the Communications Workers of America (CWA). The CWA subsequently filed charges with the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB), submitting that the firing of the 14—and one earlier termination—was in retaliation for union organizing activity and came after months of effort by the company to disrupt the organizing effort. (Lanetix had publicly stated that it was a layoff due to the company’s poor fourth quarter and the jobs were going to be outsourced, though the complaint indicated that remaining employees had been told that the terminations were due to union activity.)

In November of last year, with hearings on the case about to begin in Washington, D.C., Lanetix settled and agreed to paid the 15 former workers a total of US $775,000. That’s not an insignificant amount of money for the startup. According to Crunchbase, Lanetix’s funding to date totals $9.2 million.

In a statement at that time, former Lanetix developer Sahil Talwar called the settlement “a landmark win for tech workers.”

“We have shown what can be accomplished by standing together and standing strong,” he said.

Two more groups of tech workers, perhaps inspired by the outcome of the Lanetix case, have since kicked off union organization efforts.

Some kind of organization effort is underway at NPM, the company behind the NPM JavaScript package manager, though the company has yet to acknowledge it publicly. In April, four employees, part of a group of five fired in March, filed complaints with the NLRB. The Register, which has been covering turmoil at NPM for several months, obtained the details of three of those complaints. Each fired employee alleged that the company discharged him or her because, according to The Register:

  • “the employee(s) joined or supported a labor organization and in order to discourage union activities and/or membership.”

  • “the employee(s) engaged in protected concerted activities, by inter alia [among other things], discussing wages and/or other items and conditions of employment and in order to discourage employees from engaging in protected concerted activities.”

  • “the employee(s) engaged in protected concerted activities, by inter alia, protesting terms and conditions of employment and in order to discourage employees from engaging in protected concerted activities.” 

According to employment lawyer Wendy Musell, one of The Register’s sources, this translates as “some concerted activity to protect worker rights or a union drive was being considered or started."

NPM responded in a statement published on Medium that the layoffs were due to restructuring.

Meanwhile, union organizing efforts at Kickstarter have been far more visible, thanks to a steady stream of leaked all-staff memos. Organizers behind the effort to form Kickstarter United and have that union recognized by the Office and Professional Employees International Union announced the plan in a memo to the entire staff in March.

According to The Verge, the memo indicated that unionization is in line with Kickstarter’s values: “inclusion and solidarity, transparency and accountability; a seat at the table.”

It also stated that the organizers “trust in the democratic process and are confident that the leadership of Kickstarter stands with us in that effort. Kickstarter has always been a trailblazer, and this is a pivotal moment for tech. We want to set the standard for the entire industry.”

In a statement to The Verge, Kickstarter officials were noncommittal, indicating only that they are “aware that there are team members at Kickstarter who are interested in forming a union” and that they “look forward to hearing more about…employees’ concerns.”

Gizmodo later reported that at least some senior staff members at Kickstarter have come out against the effort. In another memo sent to all employees and subsequently leaked, these staff members state “the effort to unionize Kickstarter hasn’t felt transparent or fair” and said 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.”

That senior staff memo also suggested that union organizing is inappropriate for tech professionals. “Forming a union is a great tool—for marginalized workers,” it stated. “We’re concerned with the misappropriation of unions for use by privileged workers.”

Google employees, meanwhile, have taken other actions that fall short of union organizing. In their most recent, on 1 May, Google employees at locations around the world held sit-ins to protest retaliation against the organizers of a November walkout.

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