Microcosm, a publisher and retailer located on North Williams, drew national attention last fall for their principled stance on working with companies with anti-union practices. Microcosm routinely uses Kickstarter’s crowdfunding platform to offer pre-orders on upcoming titles. Joe Biel, the founder of Microcosm, explained that the publisher “…uses Kickstarter to promote our books to new audiences who may never walk into a bookstore and discover them. Essentially, it widens the reach and hits a different readership that doesn’t compete with our regular retailers. We have used other platforms, but Kickstarter truly has the best politics, metrics, and success rate.” During a crowdfunding campaign last summer, Kickstarter’s leadership announced that they would not voluntarily recognize a union organized by their employees. In September, when Microcosm was running another crowdfunding campaign, Kickstarter’s leadership fired two employees who had been organizing the internal unionization effort.
For Biel, supporting unionization efforts is an obvious step, based on his own experiences: “My grandparents were immigrants who came to the U.S. in the 1890s and were able to establish what we saw as middle-class lifestyles as a result of unions. Obviously, economics are different today and even more in favor of the wealthy with a rapidly disappearing middle class.”
When Microcosm discovered that Kickstarter’s employees had asked for union recognition, their first step was to check with the union:
“We checked in with union organizers who told us to carry on and that they would let us know when different actions would be helpful.” Those actions included sharing an open letter to Kickstarter on Microcosm’s website and advocating for Kickstarter’s employees on other platforms.
Running a crowdfunding campaign on a platform undergoing such turmoil is not ideal. Perhaps more difficult, though, is deciding whether a refusal to recognize a union merits public response. Biel notes, “It’s hard to trust a company that doesn’t respect its own values and precedent. The vast majority of employees that we work with there are phenomenally smart and committed so it seems that there is a growing rift between management and the company itself.” Kickstarter’s CEO, Aziz Hasan, argued that unionization would inherently damage Kickstarter as a company, but that position is difficult to justify.
Objectively, unionized organizations tend to do better, both increasing earning capacity and improving employees’ lives: Unionized workers can be up to twice as
productive as their non-unionized workers, which should please most Microcosm Supports Kickstarter’s Union employers. Marginalized employees also see smaller wage gaps with unionized employers. Objectively, communities benefit when our local employers work with unions. Employees (who may both live and work in a given community) are better equipped to participate in the community, from both social and financial perspectives.
The process of organizing a new union, however, can be difficult. Many of the strikes we’ve seen recently, especially here in Portland, are the result of employers
refusing to recognize new unions.
Given that unions are good for the communities they serve, what are our responsibilities here in Eliot when we see efforts to unionize companies here in the neighborhood?
First, we have a responsibility to respect requests made by the union: just as Microcosm respected requests by Kickstarter United to continue using the crowdfunding
platform as discussions with management continued, we should follow the lead of the people actually doing the organizing. Sometimes, that may mean respecting a strike
and changing your spending habits to avoid an organization that won’t work with its own employees. Sometimes, that may mean continuing to work with the company in
question while reminding them you that you support their union. Support can look different depending on the organizations involved.
Second, we have an obligation to stay informed about organizing efforts both here and elsewhere. Portland saw numerous union actions in 2019, only a few of which were covered by most of Portland’s media. Fred Meyer’s union went on strike, as did Burgerville. Employees at companies like Little Big Burger and Grand Central Bakery organized and asked for official recognition. Nationwide strikes, like that of Instacart workers in November, also impacted Portlanders. Staying informed can be tough but a few local organizations offer good reporting on labor news: KBOO and NW Labor Press. Microcosm also has several publications that are relevant reading: How to Boycott shares the history of American unions, while Labor Law for the Rank and Filer highlights the rights each employee has.
This is an issue that will continue to impact the Eliot community throughout 2020. There’s at least one company serving the neighborhood whose employees have asked to form a union: New Seasons. While New Seasons’ website states the company is not antiunion, it has opposed internal efforts to unionize. In October, New Seasons Workers United shared that the National Labor Relations Board had ruled that New Seasons’ managers were required to post reminders that unionizing is legal and that employees would not face repercussions for joining a union.