Before the strike began, Etsy announced a 30% seller transaction fee increase. For one week in April, 2022, nearly 30,000 Etsy vendors, zinesters, craft makers and hobbyists alike, asked their customers not to cross the picket line, even if it meant holding out patronage for their work.
Their demands were expansive. Aiming to not only correct course on the most recent nickel and diming, but address ongoing grievances. They wanted the platform to crack down on resellers peddling secondhand goods. An overhaul on moderation and overreliance on an automated response team. An end to the ‘Star Seller’ program, which aimed to reward vendors with leading traffic and reviews but ended up creating a negative feedback loop on who gets promoted.
Lastly vendors wanted to be able to opt out of offsite ads, for which Etsy automatically charged a 12% service fee. In an interview with The Guardian, Etsy user Noemie Kenyon described the program as ‘forced marketing,’ and that having little say on where and who their creations were peddled to left her unhappy.
From the earliest years of the internet landscape, platforms like eBay and craigslist opened up e-commerce for common folk. Crowdfunding, indie artisans and digital tablers have boomed online, a variety of platforms emerging to sustain niche works and crafts that fall beyond traditional commercial viability. Etsy, Kickstarter, Patreon all offer a variety of models, giving artists across endless mediums an opportunity to sustain themselves. But like every tech giant, those platforms have investors, executives, always looking to squeeze more from their user base. Several times over, Patreon has threatened policy changes that could wound lower-spending and lower-earning users. Pushback has worked.
Mattie, the Philly-based co-founder of Toxic Femme, told me it’s important that any seller recognizes that Etsy is just one platform among many. Their wares explore the intersections between queer culture, punk and metal music scenes. They are also a founding Indie Sellers Guild member and participant in the Etsy Strike. According to Mattie, the strike was a valuable lesson in how to gain back some level of power.
“It’s important for new sellers to understand that Etsy is one tool among many,” says Mattie. “A big part of the Etsy strike involved helping Etsy sellers to diversify. This involved establishing an online presence outside of Etsy. Having a presence outside of Etsy made sellers less dependent on that one platform.”
Diversifying your reach gives you the power to demand something better. When working conditions are exploitative, you can leave a platform and still be in business. When you diversify, you can still make money and build a loyal customer base elsewhere.
No longer relying on one platform also allowed the movement to grow. The strikeattracted a lot of international media attention. This was enough for Etsy to acknowledge seller grievances and make changes. Kristi Cassidy, the interim president of the Indie Sellers Guild, said the Guild kicked off with a Reddit post.
“We knew that the strike had a likely outcome of Etsy ignoring us no matter how big we got,” said Cassidy. “The only way to make that sacrifice matter was to have the strike be the beginning of our movement. Our movement helped us launch something that can advocate for sellers, union-style.”
But why a guild? Why not a union?
The Indie Sellers Guild launched on Labor Day. A day to celebrate how far we have come in the fight for workers’ rights, while acknowledging what aspects can still be improved upon. Most unprotected of all are gig workers, increasing in number and the backbone of every digital economy, from Etsy to Fiverr to Uber.
Unions traditionally need the localized unity of workers to influence labour laws. Gig work doesn’t offer an easy opportunity to do that. Rallying a decentralized, ever-expanding labour force is like trying to bottle the tide when it pulls in. With no access to financial or legal support, gig workers are at risk for exploitation. Also, labour laws often overlook the work conditions of gig workers, intentionally so. Craft guilds offer a more practical solution to this problem, at least for Etsy sellers. Guilds set global standards for conditions required to produce goods.
“Everything I’m doing to figure out how not to get screwed by Etsy’s policies I can share with others,” says Cassidy, “I can help them too. Everything I’m doing to grow my online store to be free from Etsy – I can share that with others and help them. It’s exhausting and demoralizing, feeling like you’re completely alone!”
Mattie also found a sense of community in the guild itself. “Etsy is a huge corporation,” says Mattie. “Their policy changes have made it more difficult to make a living on the platform. As an individual, there’s not much I can do to change that. It isn’t as though I can call up Etsy and try to resolve my issues with them. But in the Guild, I don’t have to feel helpless.” Mattie says they find strength knowing that there are thousands of people sharing this fight, even if the headcount is unseen.
Chiarra Lohr is the interim secretary-treasurer of the Indie Sellers Guild. Her interest in supporting the guild started after she read an article about the Etsy strike. The concept immediately appealed to her. She’s from a pro-union household; her husband is a union man. She’s also a former Etsy seller and an instructional designer at a tech start-up. Her involvement started with a Discord chat on how to create a union.
“We have already accomplished so much,” says Lohr. “I will know that I TRIED, that I stepped up and put in the effort to see if I could make things better. It helped some of the hopelessness that grew during the pandemic.”
According to Cassidy, the community grew to 82,000 people in only four weeks. They estimate that non-English speaking users, neurodivergent and LGBTQ communites comprise more than half of those numbers.
“This is a members’ organization,” says Lohr. “The leadership does what the members say they want. We have an accessibility committee because members said, ‘Hey, this is important. We need to do better here,’ and then made the committee and wrote our guidelines.”
The guild’s growing presence worldwide is very timely. I immediately think of recent mass layoffs at companies such as Shopify and Twitter. This ongoing century of tech boom has benefitted from siloed, exploited workforces. These mass layoffs mean that even this toxic model is no longer sustainable, and all who pay their bills through tech platforms need to rally.
“As things unravel, we need a strong seller-focused organization,” says Lohr. “That way, we can protect ourselves from the fallout.”
Etsy emerged as an opportunity to capture the feeling of zine and art fairs online, selling a diverse catalogue of pieces from a universe of uncanny creators. But a zine fair and a multimillion dollar enterprise are rarely the same entity. Unless Etsy returns to its original values, its downfall could be in sight. Users get bored, burned out and frustrated. This principle applies to both sellers and customers. Both have more power than they know.
Rosemary Richings is a freelance writer, editor, and public speaker specializing in neurodiversity, disability, and accessibility. Rosemary’s work has been featured in Shape Magazine, Torontoverse, Travel + Leisure, and many others. A lot of her work is based on her immersion in the neurodiversity and disability activism community and her lived experience as a neurodivergent, dyspraxic person. Rosemary is on the board of trustees of Dyspraxic Me, a peer support group for dyspraxic young adults. She also regularly collaborates with groups such as Dyspraxia Magazine and Dyspraxic Alliance on events and resources for dyspraxic people of all ages. Her debut novel: Stumbling Through Space and Time: Living Life with Dyspraxia, is now available through Jessica Kingsley Publisher. Although she is originally from Toronto, she currently lives in Marrakech, Morocco. You can learn more about her by visiting her website.