It was 79F yesterday in the ATX and 46F this morning. We’ll see 60F by the afternoon. Winter is brutal in Austin By God Texas, y’all. Brutal.
So, I have been reading up on efforts to create unions at tech firms — talking to you Kickstarter, Uber, Google. While I used “Kickstarter” as the click bait title, there has been a lot of such activity in the tech world.
I am a huge fan of Kickstarter and the entire crowdfunding industry. It was an industry that was invented from the whole cloth and I love it, but as a company, their ham handed response to an effort to unionize their 160 person workforce has been a study in how not to do things.
Buzzfeed is another example of a company who saw the writing on the wall, read it, translated it, and acted upon it.
This union formation effort happens and is happening for a number of reasons:
1. First, we are at full employment. When you arrive at full employment, the power at the negotiating table swings to the employee side. READ THIS AGAIN
This is the most basic, fundamental change in the market. If you ignore this simple fact, then you are hopelessly lost. Anybody who is resisting the creation of unions has to face up to this reality.
2. Unionized employees get higher pay, better benefits, and better understanding of the employee-employer relationship.
When companies like We Work — and a slew of other SoftBank funded goliaths — layoff thousands of employees in a single day, workers are going to look for a port in that storm. When they arrive, they will be wet and pissed off. That pissed offness will generate energy.
VC funded companies fall into this category because of their hard hearted sense of layoffs. They have sown the wind and they must reap the resulting whirlwind. It is a self-inflicted malady.
3. Unions and employers enter into Collective Bargaining Agreements whereby the union “bargains” on behalf of all the employees.
These unions — such as the Office and Professional Employees International Union (Local 153 in the case of Kickstarter) — know how to organize, have done it before, are always ready for a fight, and know the law (which is squarely on the side of the employee at all times).
4. Union membership in the US has been dwindling for years — less than 15,000,000 today at a time when there are more workers ever in the history of the United States.
Jobs are going up while union membership is going down.
5. The unions are powerful political machines and the bosses don’t like seeing their power dwindling.
6. The impetus to create unions (from the AFL-CIO and its offshoot Change to Win Federation) is most prevalent in the service, public, and, now, tech workers. This means that city employees, government workers, teachers, cops, firemen, and tech workers in software, marketing, accounting, and other “soft” professions are where the action is.
All of which brings us to two different situations: BuzzFeed and Kickstarter.
Online publications have been enmeshed in union movements for the last five years starting with Gawker in 2015. This was followed by a number of other media companies:
3. Vice Media
6. The Dodo
7. Vox Media (SB Nation, Eater, The Verge)
8. The Onion
9. Gimlet Media
11. NY Magazine’s The Cut, Vulture, and Intelligencer.
If you are in the media business, you saw this coming for a long time. The New York Times writers are unionized and have been forever. They once produced the finest news product on the planet. Now, they produce tripe unsuitable for fish mongers to wrap three day old fish. But that is a subject for another day, dear reader.
So, BuzzFeed cannot say they were surprised by the formation of the BuzzFeed News Union in early 2019 — 90% support in a preliminary nose count of supporters, mind you.
But the BuzzFeed News Union didn’t just use their words — “Use your words, sweetie” — they engaged in a protest rally with signs, chants, T-shirts (incredibly powerful tool to change anybody’s thought about anything), a bullhorn, speeches, and an inflated rat that was supposed to signify a nonunion workplace. Get it, the rats?
The BuzzFeed workers conducted their walkout protest at their New York, Los Angeles, San Francisco, and Washington, DC locations. It was a coordinated effort.
In the BuzzFeed example, the organizers stressed that if BuzzFeed is committed to being a cutting edge news organization, they needed to adopt the industry labor standards of the leaders. It was a logical argument to which the management responded with a dopey argument.
The BuzzFeed News Union seeks affiliation with the NewsGuild of New York (part of the Communications Workers of America) — same bunch who represents the workers of the New York Times, the LA Times, Thomson Reuters, The Nation, the New Republic, The New Yorker, and The Daily Beast.
Management, in the form of its founder and CEO Jonah Peretti, made the amateurish mistake of publicly expressing its opposition to the formation of a union. He eloquently said:
“I don’t think a union is right for BuzzFeed.”
Haha, Jonah actually said that. A company that lives and dies by its words used those words? Those shallow dumb words? Those unconvincing, unpersuasive words? Please spare me.
Of course, it is not BuzzFeed who is getting a union, who is unionizing — it is the workers, dumbass.
The CEO Jonah P argued that this move would put the workers and management at odds and lead to rigid job descriptions, formulaic pay schedules, and less “flexibility” than their competitors like Facebook or Google.
The workers meanwhile were looking for fair treatment from management (indicating they were sort of already at odds with management, no?), clear job descriptions, a transparent pay schedule, and clear career paths.
They also wanted due process prior to termination for cause, a methodology to resolve legitimate grievances, the resolution of unfair pay disparities, a clear statement and program on diversity, better management of pivots and layoffs, fair and reasonable severance arrangements, a diverse new room, an affordable health care insurance scheme, ownership rights to creative work product, and a 401K plan.
Stop for a second — do you see anything in that preceding paragraph that would possibly be a surprise in the employer-employee relationship in any minimally professional company in the United States?
Come on, Big Red Car, what precipitated this?
You are a shrewd one. What precipitated the contretemps at BuzzFeed was an involuntary layoff of about 200 persons without warning. It was bungled beyond belief. It was caused by a “miss” on revenue targets.
To add insult to injury — a very potent cocktail — BuzzFeed (our boy Jonah) initially refused to pay out earned vacation as if the company had a better use for that money than the persons who actually earned it.’
Stop — what does that tell you about the heart of our boy Jonah? He wanted to confiscate the unpaid but earned vacation time of his laid off workers.
That got sorted out and in that process the idea of a union was born.
Now, Jonah — confronted with a 90% card check vote (more about card checks later) — has agreed to voluntarily enter into negotiations to form a collective bargaining agreement covering 80 workers in the United States.
Stay tuned to see how that works out.
Comes now Brooklyn-based, 160-employee Kickstarter, a brilliant company that has raised more than $4.5B of capital for 170,000 projects over its 10 year history. Hard to suggest this is not a successful company.
There are those who are quick to note that K-start has been involved in some dodgy projects related to the “Punch a Nazi” meme, but, really, that is small potatoes. And, there have been a few outright frauds, but amongst 170,000 sponsors you will have some rotters. I like the company.
Well, that is until I researched the management’s opposition to the formation of a union by its 160 employees who seek representation by the Office and Professional Employees International Union Local 153. My research uncovered some odd to stupid behavior of the Hanlon’s Razor type of misdeed.
“Never attribute to malice that which can be adequately explained by stupidity.”
This is what management, meaning the current CEO one Aziz Hasan (former product guy now elevated to CEO after the departure of co-founder Perry Chen who had returned to work out a few kinks, stayed for a couple of years, and re-departed), has done:
1. At the first inkling of the desire to form (really explore) a union, the CEO took a stance against the union.
The smart play would have been to say, “Oh, you’ve got some beefs? Let me see if I can fix them. Maybe we form a committee to address them?” That is, of course, right out of the anti-union playbook.
2. The company fires two (Clarissa Redwine, Taylor Moore) of the union organizers — Pro tip: Never, ever, ever, ever fire a union organizer under any conditions. Ever. — who then plead RETALIATION to the National Labor Relations Board.
The NLRB will work late on Thursdays on cases that involve retaliation because they get to see faces. Real people are involved. Management is not real people. Management always loses.
3. The company, predictably, amateurishly pleads the two organizers were righteously fired and it is purely coincidence that they happened to be leaders in the union movement.
See #2 above.
They offer tons of supposed evidence thereby making the case all about their performance appraisal system rather than forming a union. There are Performance Improvement Plans involved, twice-a-year performance reviews, peer feedback, manager feedback, one-on-one coaching and, in some cases, mediation and other obscure, arcane claptrap — BORING — that nobody at the NLRB is ever going to read before they find in favor of the little people and against the management.
Management also gave every one of their 160 employees one more reason to join the union.
4. The fired union organizers filed a complaint with the NLRB for back pay, reinstatement — which they WILL get based on the record of the NLRB on such matters.
Stop — can you see the enormous amount of lost productivity involved in this. This is why you do NOT fire union organizers.
5. The CEO then sent out a series of emails that violated the basic rule of running things — never take more than a single side of a 3 x 5 card to explain anything. This is sometimes called the Alan Greenspan Rule.
6. Amongst the words that came from the CEO’s pen were this jewel:
“. . . we don’t think a union framework is the right tool to fix Kickstarter’s problems.”
Haha, he admitted that there were problems. What does the union suggest they can do? Fix problems.
Compare that jewel to the BuzzFeed utterance above. Seem familiar?
7. The biggie: unlike BuzzFeed, when faced with support for a union, Kickstarter has refused to voluntarily recognize a union and is insisting instead on a cumbersome secret-ballot election after having their own outside counsel and an impartial outside expert on unions come and try to talk the employees out of their crazy notion.
So what, Big Red Car?
I suppose what is at the core of this brouhaha is that Kickstarter erects a defense that none of this claptrap is necessary because they are progressive and are a PBC — Public Benefit Corporation.
The conflict that is erected is that as a progressive organization Kickstarter sniffs the air, raises its nose, and protests that it is above the fray when it comes to leftist considerations such as labor rights or collective bargaining — oh, wait, those are core progressive beliefs, no?
Worse still, almost all of their creative customers — writers, video brethren, cartoonists, whale tusk carvers — are progressive folks in their own right and they are threatening to jump ship — the word boycott has been spoken — if their “co-partners” are not treated with dignity and respect.
A PBC is a lot of baloney, virtue signalling baloney, that does nothing for the workers. It does not prevent them from being laid off. It does not ensure severance payments. It does not provide an equitable dispute resolution technique. It does not require fair pay or benefits. It does not provide a career.
It is like saying to your wife complaining of a roof leak, “Shut up already. I bought a dog today.” Nice gesture. Doesn’t fix the problem.
However, on the other hand, a good collective bargaining agreement does provide for those things, which is exactly why the employees of Kickstarter would rather have a union to negotiate a collective bargaining agreement rather than a second helping of yams at Christmas dinner.
What offends me is the raw stupidity — the Hanlon’s Razor aspect — of the entire matter.
1. Of course the workers are going to get their union. It may take a work stoppage, a bull horn, T-shirts, chanting, even a rat statue.
2. Of course the labor agitators will get their jobs back with back pay and reinstatement.
3. The enterprise, the Kickstarter brand, will take a black eye in the process and another dream of a liberal, leftist Utopia will be shattered when money again ran smack dab into progressiveness (or -ism?).
4. Why is everybody so damn stupid?
What can we learn here, Big Red Car?
There are some lessons:
1. We can learn that the days of venture funded fast growing businesses trampling on the rights of workers in the search for and pursuit of scale are finito.
2. We can learn that in the days of full employment, the meme of “you should just be happy to have a job, any job, in tech” are over.
3. We can learn that the inevitability of reality will continue to trump the nonsense of short term expediency.
4. In times of full employment, the power curve shifts toward the employees. Don’t be the last person on the planet to get the memo.
I will not bore you with my personal dealings with the building trades unions, the Teamsters while on the Capitol Metro board, or as a card carrying cement finisher in my mis-spent youth.
But, hey, what the Hell do I really know anyway? I’m just a Big Red Car. Be well. Go plan a project on Kickstarter.