More SPX sponsor controversy as Kickstarter is accused of firing union organizers

Earlier in the week we reported on Cartoonists Against Amazon, a coalition of creators who released a statement calling for indie comics shows to stop accepting sponsorship from Comixology/Amazon because of Amazon’s business and labor practices.

Although Comixology has sponsored SPX’s after-Ignatz party in years past, in 2019 they are not involved with the show. Instead, SPX lists crowdfunding platform Kickstarter as a sponsor.

And indeed, a few days ago it was revealed that Kickstarter had specifically paid for the table costs of some especially worthy creators who have used their platform in the past.

Among those selected:

Zainab Akhtar/Shortbox, Carla Speed McNeill, Hazel Newlevant, Laura Knetzger, Lawrence Lindell, Archie Bongiovanni, Claire Connelly, Richie Pope, Maia Kobabe, Christina Steenz” Stewart, Henry Barajas and Rhael McGregor. That’s a marvelous swath of talent, and looking at the big picture, helping small, often marginalized, creators get access to a show like SPX can be seen as a more important task than just buying people a few drinks.

Everything seemed to be having a fairly happy ending…until yesterday when news broke that Kickstarter was accused of firing two employees who were leading an attempt to unionize the company. “Kickstarter Has Fired Two Union Organizers in Eight Days” read the headline on Slate.

Today a far longer and more detailed story by April Glaser arrived, giving all the background on the dispute, gleaned from interviews with many Kickstarter employees. And, perhaps not surprisingly, it turns out that a comic was at the heart of the incident that started the move to unionization.

Last year Ben Ferrari started a campaign to crowdfund Always Punch Nazis, an anthology of stories written in the wake of Charlottesville aimed at confronting racist views. However, the right-wing site Breitbart objected to the project being carried, claiming it advocated for violence. The debate over what to do, according to Glaser’s story, set off a crisis of conscience within Kickstarter:

What happened over the next seven days rattled the Kickstarter staff. After the Breitbart article, the project had to be reviewed by Kickstarter’s Trust and Safety team, which audits whether disputed content violates the company’s community guidelines or is making other users unsafe. Because it was satirical, Always Punch Nazis may not have been a clear-cut case. According to multiple current and former employees, the Trust and Safety team initially decided not to act against Always Punch Nazis. But then management overruled the team, saying that Always Punch Nazis had to come down.

According to staffers, because the situation had become high profile, a member of the Trust and Safety team posted in a staffwide Slack channel that Always Punch Nazis would be canceled after all. Employees who felt the company was giving in to bigots were livid. Senior leadership called an emergency all-hands meeting that afternoon to hear staff concerns and explain that the company needed to consistently enforce its policies and that the project shouldn’t have been automatically approved in the first place.

It was unease over this decision that fomented the start of union organization. But two of the leaders of this movement, Clarissa Redwine and Taylor Moore, have been let go over the last two weeks, and an even larger crisis seems to be taking place. If Kickstarter were to unionize it would be the first big modern tech company to do so — a huge precedent.

As this controversy is just starting, there were only a few SPX voices expressing unease on Twitter, the public square for these matters. But expect it to be an awkward topic in the barcon (wherever it is) of the show.

Kickstarter has always held itself as a company that acted with principle and a mind for the greater good. Just today several SPX creators launched Kickstarter campaigns and as the above list shows, the platform has aided the development of dozens or scores of marginalized creators and given readers a real choice. One can only hope that the people who run Kickstarter will see was a massive fail stifling worker organization is, and become more responsive to their employees. Otherwise, it won’t be pretty.

Whatever happens, it’s going to be a big story.

Elsewhere on the sponsorship front, as if the Kickstarter controversy wasn’t enough, Bedside Press publisher Hope Nicholson tweeted this morning about SPX claiming sponsorship of artists whose tables and travel she actually paid for herself:

Nicholson didn’t name the sponsored creators, saying only that they’re Indigenous, a group that Nicholson has championed in her work.

That’s some clerical error if that’s all it is, though the executive director of the con apparently running away from Nicholson upon meeting her isn’t helping make that case.

Enjoy SPX, everyone!

(With additional reporting by Joe Grunenwald)

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