Tech Workers’ Lessons in Organizing for Change at Work
Kiron Roy is software engineer at Etsy who came together with coworkers after investors installed a new CEO and abruptly cut 240 jobs. Roy and his coworkers began to fear that new management might steer Etsy away from its mission-driven focus. As Etsy’s social and environmental projects got shut down, Roy and his coworkers became frustrated with what they dubbed a “sales growth at all costs” model. Instead, they wanted Etsy to be a visionary global marketplace once again.
Hundreds of Etsy employees and sellers came together on Coworker.org to push for change. They launched a petition to hold the new Etsy ownership accountable to its employees and sellers. They held meetings to discuss the challenges they were facing and potential solutions. Some, like Roy, spoke to media outlets about their concerns. Over the course of their campaign, they gained valuable experience in organizing for improvements at work in today’s highly financialized tech sector.
We sat down with Kiron Roy to hear how Etsy employees achieved one of the campaign’s largest goals.
Tell us a little about yourself.
My name’s Kiron Roy. I’m from New Jersey. I’m a software engineer at Etsy and my hobby is procrastinating on fixing my bike for “just one more week”.
Your Coworker.org petition to hold Etsy’s new ownership accountable to its original values-aligned vision led Etsy’s CEO Josh Silverman to issue measurable public impact goals in order to to increase Etsy’s positive impact on the world. What was happening at Etsy that inspired you to start a petition?
I started thinking about trying to organize some form of collective action when Etsy went through two rounds of layoffs in May and June. Personally, I was pretty angry for a couple of weeks after the first round of layoffs. I felt scared and helpless. I felt a little betrayed. Talking to my coworkers, it seemed like I wasn’t the only one feeling fear and uncertainty. People were scared that we’d abandon our values as a sustainable company — they were uncertain how Etsy’s sellers would be impacted and a lot of people were worried that they’d lose their job or their benefits would get cut. I felt like the concerns that I was hearing from my peers weren’t being addressed by management at the time, so me and another coworker (who’s since left Etsy) started exploring ways to get our concerns heard and addressed.
Did you have any previous experience trying to create change in your workplace?
Nope! But I’ve always been vocal in my belief that the things we do as a company should be partially guided by the ethics of the employees that work here, as well as the interests of the sellers that sell on Etsy.
Did you ever feel nervous about petitioning your employer? How did you overcome that?
Oh yeah. But I was pretty sure it was the right thing to do. I still think so. I drafted the petition with reasonable, intelligent people, and reasonable, intelligent people have expressed agreement with it since. We weren’t asking for anything outlandish. We just want a little say in the future of Etsy and in our day-to-day lives at a company that we love.
How did it feel to see people signing on and commenting on your Coworker.org petition? What were the challenges or unexpected moments you faced?
It felt exhilarating and nerve-wracking and inspiring and stressful. One thing that surprised me was how quick management’s response was. Pretty much within the first day after we put the petition on Coworker.org, I heard that members of the executive team were talking about how to respond to it.
The petition wasn’t even public yet! I think it might have gotten posted in a slack channel at work or something. Regardless, it was a shockingly quick response, which shows they took it seriously.
One early challenge was when I realized that one of the demands contained a sentence that was potentially unclear. Obviously that wasn’t my intention, and I felt like I’d let down the people who had already signed, since management then used that wording to brush off that demand. I learned that choosing your words carefully is really important, because we are talking about our real need for basic things like parental leave, stability, and transparency — that benefit everyone.
What has your employer’s response to you been? How about their response to your petition’s demands?
Some of us were pulled into surprise meetings with senior management about the petition. The meetings I was in ranged from somewhat productive and amicable to unproductive and strained. I don’t know if that variance was by design, but it felt like they were playing “good cop/bad cop”. They never threatened to retaliate against me, and as far as I can tell right now they haven’t punished me in any way.
Overall, Etsy’s leadership’s strategy was to identify a minor weak point in the language of the petition and question the feasibility of one of our demands, and use that to question the overall viability or need for a petition at all. They also said they wondered why the concerns in the petition hadn’t been raised internally first, but I raised some of the concerns in the petition internally and received no response. It felt like leadership was closing off internal lines of communication rather than actually listening to what people were saying.
There was a general narrative that the petition hurt the feelings of the executive team, but I think it’s a respectful request that the executive team (and the board of directors) work with us to make Etsy better.
What did your coworkers think of Etsy leadership’s response?
There were certain aspects of the response that people were receptive to, and others that people rejected. I think in general, leadership’s response muddied the waters enough to make people feel uncertain or uncomfortable signing the petition. There were some comical moments too, where the rhetoric from management around the petition was a bit extreme and my friends and I had a good laugh about it.
What kind of feedback did you get from your coworkers at first and how has that evolved? What did your friends and family think of it?
In general, my coworkers have been supportive of the tone and values of the petition. The most common thing I heard from my coworkers is that they want all the things in the petition, and they want to sign, but they were afraid that they’d be retaliated against. People were also skeptical that the petition would accomplish anything.
As management’s talking points started getting delivered, I started hearing that people weren’t sure if they were 100% comfortable with every demand in the petition, and were hesitant to sign because of that. Through it all, the one uncontroversial demand is a long-term commitment to parental leave.
My friends and family have been extremely supportive. This kind of thing is not in my wheelhouse, so I felt like I was learning and making mistakes every step of the way. I feel lucky and grateful to have such tolerant and supportive friends. When I had an idea I wanted to talk through, or if I just needed to vent, they were there to hear me out.
What ended up happening?
A few weeks ago, Etsy’s CEO announced that Etsy is committing to a set of measurable goals designed to increase Etsy’s positive impact on the world, spread over three areas of positive impact: economic, social, and ecological. Behind the scenes were my coworkers, and our demands.
We have a really intelligent group of people whose full-time job it is to advocate for sellers, figure out how we can build a more sustainable future, and try to ensure that Etsy’s work culture is diverse and inclusive. They really did the majority of the work on crafting the impact goals that got announced, which satisfied one of the demands in our petition!
What are the next steps for you?
This whole process has changed my perspective on the tech industry. As well-treated as many of us are, we’re still workers.
We may have nap rooms and ping-pong tables, but if some rich dude with a hedge fund and a few million dollars wants to make a quick buck at the price of several hundred people losing their jobs, we’re pretty much powerless to stop it unless we organize. You don’t have to look far to get an idea of how skilled tech labor would be treated if the job market were slightly different. People within our own industry — Amazon fulfillment center workers, Facebook cafeteria workers, female employees at Uber — are treated pretty poorly by most accounts.
On top of all that, the platforms we build are political, whether we like it or not. They will have a major impact on the future of our society. We can see it already, with Facebook’s role in the 2016 election, Google’s ubiquity, etc. I’ve started asking myself what we as privileged tech workers are doing to make this industry better for our fellow tech workers, the people who use our platforms, and for ourselves.
What would you say to other tech workers and engineers who are concerned about the direction of their companies and are thinking about starting a petition on Coworker.org?
Get organized. Figure out what you’re concerned about, find out if others are concerned about it as well. Listen to what people have to say. Build up a core group of people who want change, who have good ideas, and who challenge you.
Meet regularly, but be respectful of people’s time. Prepare yourself to be very uncomfortable for a few months. Remember: This isn’t about you, and don’t try to make it about yourself. Have courage in your convictions. This may be the most challenging, rewarding, soul-crushing, inspiring thing you’ve done.
You can learn more and join Kiron’s campaign on Coworker.org here.
Coworker.org is a global platform to advance change in the workplace. Our technology makes it easy for individuals or groups of employees to launch, join and win campaigns to improve their jobs and workplaces. You can start your own campaign about changes you want to see in your workplace on Coworker.org here — or contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org if you would like to discuss a workplace issue with our team.