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Imagine chilling with your plants. Or rather, imagine a campaign that allows users to make music by translating the biorhythms of their plants into sounds, so they can use those subtle vibrations to slow themselves down, guide their listening, and expand their awareness until they are able to hear the nuances in the stories told by their little green leafy friends.
It sounds like something out of the science-fiction cult classic Silent Running. But it’s not science fiction. It’s PlantWave, a new technology being crowdfunded on Kickstarter.
PlantWave began its Kickstarter campaign on September 25th. It’s an all-or-nothing project which means that the project will only be funded if it reaches its goal of $104,860 by October 28th at 2:59 am EDT. The project is currently at $91,173 – 86.9 percent of its goal.
But PlantWave and many other futuristic projects may never reach their Kickstarter goals, and this has nothing to do with the value of their individual projects. Instead, they are directly related to Twitter mobs demanding that nobody support Kickstarter until Kickstarter management voluntarily recognizes Kickstarter United as a union.
According to Slate, calls for a union at Kickstarter began on March 19th, 2019. But the first signs of turmoil at the company appeared earlier after Breitbart accused Kickstarter of violating its own Terms of Service by collecting money on the platform for a comic book by Ben Ferrari called Always Punch Nazis.
The Trust and Safety Team then reviewed the comic to determine whether or not it went against the platform’s guidelines against encouraging violence. They decided not to pull the comic on the basis that it was “satirical,” despite its title being based on a real-life incident in which white nationalist Richard Spencer was punched in the face, and despite this seemingly non-satirical definition of Nazis and their sympathizers:
“Sometimes they’re called Nazis. Other times, they’re the “far-right” or “alt-right.” White Nationalists. No matter the name, hateful groups are spewing vile, racist, anti-immigrant, anti-POC, anti-LGTBQ+, anti-anything-but white-Christian-views ideologies. SCREW THAT.”
Management overruled The Trust and Safety Team’s decision, and the comic came down. Someone from Trust and Safety’s Team announced this on a staff Slack channel. Immediately, some Kickstarter employees became furious, arguing that by following their own ethical guidelines and terminating the publication, the company was giving in to bigots.
Emergency meetings were called. Concerns were heard. Management wondered how the campaign had been approved in the first place.
Management then seemingly succumbed to staff pressure from former employees like Taylor Moore who told the Washington Post, “There is a set of rules in life and one big rule that says don’t help Nazis. I didn’t want Kickstarter to just be one of these companies that folded for these slugs.”
But, just to show how meaningless and ubiquitous the word Nazi has become, I was put on over 25 “Nazi” lists on Twitter while I was eating Rosh Hashanah dinner, just because I write for Quillette. My editor, Jonathan Kay has written an article called “Nazis: A Modern Field Guide” just to show how far we have come from the actual meaning of the word to “someone I disagree with.” So, if Kickstarter wants to follow its own ethical standards, I am not sure they made the right call in returning the comic’s campaign to its platform, as there seems to me to be nothing satirical about the violence it seeks to incite.
So let’s slow down this story a bit, as if we’re chilling with our music-making leafy friends, and listen to the subtle nuances of this story, which includes the story of campaigns like PlantWave and several others that contacted me, but were afraid to express the difficulty their campaigns have been having.
Whenever Kickstarter tries to promote a campaign, it is inevitably met with vitriol:
An angry Twitter mob descends upon the tweet promoting the campaign with attacks such as: “Let your plants play, but don’t let your workers unionize” and “Unionize or die.”
But not all voices on Twitter agree that punishing campaigns on Kickstarter is the way to express your support for those at the company who would like to unionize. On September 29th, Amanda Palmer respectfully disagreed with her husband Neil Gaiman on the issue. Her suggestion was to let the current campaigns on the site wrap up, and not to punish the artists who may be caught in the crossfire between staff and Kickstarter.
In actuality, it appears that Kickstarter will support the formation of a union if that’s what the majority of the employees want. In a memo posted to their Twitter feed on October 4th, they shared FAQS about recent events at Kickstarter.
The memo says that Kickstarter fully supports the formation of a union by a certified NLBR process, if the employees do so choose. To move forward with this process, Kickstarter United would need support from at least 30% of the employees. Kickstarter United’s decision not to move forward at this point, may suggest that they may not have that many employees interested in joining the union. As noted in the aforementioned article in Slate, not all staff felt that it was wrong for management to take Always Punch Nazis down. Why would we assume that they all want to be unionized?
It seems to be taken for granted by Twitter mobs and most who hear the story, but would a union even be good for Kickstarter? There are currently no existing tech unions. Why might that be?
NPR conducted a radio show in 2012 called Which Workers Need Unions, And Which Don’t? The show, hosted by Neal Conan of NPR, had three guests on the show and several callers phoned in to give their experiences on being members of unions. The responses might surprise the Twitter mob, if they cared to read them.
The main guests on the show were Michael Kazin, a History professor from Georgetown University, Jay Moon, President and CEO of Mississippi Manufacturers Association, and Sara Ziff, Founder and Director of the Model Alliance.
While actors and models benefited most from unions, because their careers were short-lived and their jobs were sporadic, the other callers and speakers, which included manufacturing workers, said they would not join a union. And even Michael Kazin, History professor and editor of Dissent, argued that employees should be able to join a union if they want to.
For the most part, the talk show revealed that unions may be “victims of their own success” as the “basics of working conditions and pay” have been won.
Unions often standardize pay among workers. Standardizing pay among employees made sense when workers were low-skilled and had the same basic qualifications, as they often did in factories. But in a field like the tech industry, workers may bring different skills to the table, and it may be in their best interest to negotiate their salaries directly with their employer.
The NPR show and its participants seemed to agree that if employees have good communication with management, if their pay rates and working conditions roughly match the rest of the country in that field, and if they do not feel they require a grievance procedure, unions are unnecessary and costly.
Also, once unionized, it’s possible that the relationship between employee and employer may become unnecessarily antagonistic. Certain flexibilities around workplaces may start to disappear as union stewards, not necessarily with the support of all employees, make demands the employer feels are unreasonable. For example, employers might request that tech employees be on-site to work for a specific number of hours, where they had not required this before.
Is it possible then, that despite all the trouble Kickstarter United has brought to the campaigns on their platform, that less than 30 percent of staff feel that the comic fiasco and the dismissal of employees who were on performance plans, or who had warnings about their tone and not being able to take criticism from management, is sufficient reason to proceed with the process to request official certification of Kickstarted United?
If even one employee expressed to Kickstarter staff that they were not interested in being unionized, that too would explain Kickstarter’s insistence that this process be done publicly, without union-desiring employees pressuring other employees, and with the requirement that at least 30% of 153 workers at Greenpoint in Brooklyn, support the union.
I reached out to Kickstarter United to ask what percentage of Kickstarter’s staff were interested in forming a union. I did not receive a response. Unfortunately, until Kickstarter United reveals whether or not they have less than 30 percent support among staff to unionize, their supporters will continue to mindlessly harass campaigns like PlantWave. The question is, would the Twitter mob stop harassing these campaigns if Kickstarter United revealed they actually just lack the mandate among their employees to support a union?