Ecommerce meets collective bargaining: How a Philly crafter helped organize the Etsy strike and create a new sellers guild

Online platforms are reaping huge profits from the independent merchants that make up their user base.

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Online marketplace Etsy recently made changes that sparked resistance from the independent sellers that make up the platform, and a Philadelphia craftsperson played a considerable role in helping merchants start to push back.

Eighty thousand sellers signed a petition ahead of a 30,000-seller strike in April, demonstrating that while they create their products independently, they don’t want to deal with the ecommerce company alone.

Now the strike’s organizers have cemented that fact by creating the Indie Sellers Guild.

“I was one of the people who helped to write the petition, and I’ve been involved ever since,” seller Mattie Boyd told Billy Penn. The West Philly-based creator is now an interim member of the ISG council.

The ISG, which officially launched this Labor Day, aims to organize merchants on Etsy and similar platforms. It now has 2,000 members and counting, hailing from around the world: the UK, Greece, Australia, Germany, Canada, Sweden, the Netherlands, the Philippines, France, Ukraine, Israel, Denmark, Thailand, and New Zealand.

Why Etsy sellers went on strike

Etsy is doing better than ever — in 2020, a COVID-induced bump in online commerce more than doubled profits for the publicly-listed company, reaching $10 billion, according to Forbes. But the company has fallen off in other ways, said West Philly seller Boyd.

The inciting event for the organizing was first announced in February: a transaction fee increase from 5 to 6.5%. Boyd, who in 2019 cofounded handmade apparel brand Toxic Femme, was one of many merchants left disgruntled by the change.

“[The increase] happened at a time when so many Etsy sellers, myself included, had been noticing a real decline in the service and the support that we were getting from Etsy,” they said.

Issues included weeks-long wait times for servicing help tickets, automated shop shutdowns affecting active, rule-abiding shops, and a lack of enforcement of the company’s own policy against resellers who offer sweatshop produced goods.

The fee increase was the straw that broke the camel’s back, Boyd said. What started as a suggestion on an Etsy subreddit morphed into a genuine work slowdown on the week of the fee increase, April 11-18.

At first, a strike sounded nice but implausible, but the idea won Boyd over. “I started to realize that the choice is either to do something or not do something,” they said, “and I wanted to do something.”

Boyd helped to write the initial petition, which was signed by over 80,000 people.

On the first day of the strike, over 30,000 sellers participated, and many continued doing so as the week went on.

“We went on strike by putting our shops on vacation mode, which removed any active listings we had temporarily from the site,” Boyd said. That led to a 1% drop in active listings across the platform, by ISG estimates. An Etsy spokesperson later said during an investors call that the strike had “no material impact” on the platform.

The 30,000 participants were but a fraction of some 5 million Etsy sellers, but the organizers still feel encouraged. This first action was not only rushed, Boyd said, it was also limited in reach because it was only promoted in English.

One petition demand was actually addressed, though. The Star Seller program, which awarded badges to sellers for meeting certain customer service metrics, was pared down.

“They didn’t get rid of it entirely, [but] they did make some changes so that fewer people are being excluded from potentially benefiting from having the Star Seller badge — and it happened very, very soon after the conclusion of the strike,” Boyd said.

The creation of the Indie Sellers Guild

The strike’s core organizers began meeting with a member of the Democratic Socialists of America’s Emergency Workers Organizing Committee, for “informal guidance,” per Boyd, which helped the ISG go from an idea to a concrete reality.

“We’ve been looking into modeling a lot of the stuff in our bylaws off of the IWW and various other unions,” Boyd said. “We’ve got some members, including a member of the council, who have union experience.”

For now, Boyd said, it’s not going to be a traditional union with NLRB elections, as the concept of an online platform worker is still too new for the labor law regime. Legally, the ISG is a nonprofit organization.

As the name suggests — it’s not the “Etsy” Sellers Guild — the ISG is meant to include sellers on other ecommerce sites as well.

“We’re particularly interested in working with other platforms proactively to come up with a contract basically, that governs things like what it costs to access customers on the platform and the process by which they can change the terms of service,” Boyd said.

Since the Sept. 5 launch, the group has been onboarding more and more members from around the world.

As it comes together, there are new issues to mobilize around, like Etsy’s new partnership with the financial services company Plaid, with which sellers are now supposed to register.

“Plaid asks us not just for our account number and routing number, but is asking for our online banking usernames and passwords, which is very sketchy,” Boyd said, adding that “even our own banks are telling us that we’re not supposed to share this info.”

A federal judge in July ordered Plaid to pay a $58 million settlement resulting from a class action lawsuit after the company sold users’ financial data without their consent — an uneasy fact for Etsy sellers being asked to share similar info with the firm.

The ISG team is ready for the long haul, and plans to take on the platform on multiple fronts, Boyd said. They also hope to see similar movements among content creators on sites like Bandcamp and Onlyfans.

“If we had the sort of power, with 30,000, to compel a lukewarm response from Etsy, if we keep growing and developing something that’s able to be more accountable and more democratic, we think that power is going to increase,” Boyd said. “That’s the basis by which we want to collectively bargain with these platforms.”

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