This article originally appeared on VICE US.
Warehouse workers at one of Magic: The Gathering’s largest secondhand stores say they are trying to unionize, a major step for the collectible card game’s workforce.
The more than 100 workers at TCGPlayer’s warehouse, which sells Magic: the Gathering, Pokémon, and Yu-Gi-Oh! cards, among other collectibles, say they have concerns about their working conditions and healthcare.
“We were promised a company that truly cared about its workers, offering great benefits and a supportive, nurturing community,” the union’s organizing committee said in a letter it released online. “As the company has grown and evolved, workers in the Fulfillment Center have experienced much of this promise erode.”
Magic: the Gathering and other collectible card games are big money. The individual cards can be worth thousands of dollars and local and online second hand stores have built a business out of getting expensive cards into the hands of the players who want them. TCGPlayer is one of the industry's largest middlemen. It gets cards to players that want them and sells cards online for local stores.
To ship those orders, it employs a staff of 130 workers in its fulfillment center in Syracuse, New York. “We’re dealing with secondary product, single cards,” Richard Vallejo—a TCGPlayer employee and member of the union’s organizing committee told Motherboard on the phone. “So my role is receiving new cards coming in from local stores, opening them up, and going through to make sure that it’s the right card, right set, and right condition.”
Vallejo sits at a desk with a computer, opening packages and checking their authenticity on a computer. The other side of the business is shipping, where employees pull carts around the warehouse, sorting through filing cabinets for individual cards before packing them up and shipping them out. “[It’s] a lot of repetitive stress and motion,” Vallejo said. “Packing those cards, hunched over a desk for long periods of time...it’s not light work. It takes a toll on people’s bodies.
According to Vallejo, changes to TCGPlayer’s healthcare system sparked the call for a union among the warehouse staff. When Vallejo started working for TCGPlayer, he was paying $60 twice a month for his health insurance. Now, management is changing the plan and changing how much each employee pays. “With the changes, my share would go from $60 to more than $130 a paycheck,” he said.
“By the time we found this out it was three days before open enrollment,” he said. Vallejo said that TGCPlayer blamed the insurance provider for increasing prices. “But when it came time to actually enroll...I could see that the overall premium increase went up by 25 percent across the board. So the biggest change was that they were dropping the contribution rates for all of the top three level plans. They were reducing the employer contribution rate causing it to increase the price for us significantly.”
According to Vallejo, the healthcare issues started in September, and in late October 15 percent of the comapny’s workforce was laid off: “The entire morning was panic. No one, not even supervisors, knew if we still had jobs. There’s been a severe lack of a sense of job security since then. Especially as they’ve tried to increase metrics and productivity and made changes to payscale.”
Vallejo and others began to organize. They contacted the Service Employees International Union Local 200United in Syracuse and announced their intent to unionize on March 16. Management refused to recognize the union and requested a secret ballot from its employees through the National Labor Relations Board. (NLRB)
“We have a formal petition with the NLRB,” Vallejo said. “At this point, we’re waiting on this process but we’re unsure how long things will be delayed because of the coronavirus.” Vallejo is confident that vote will pass, saying the union had support of a super majority of the warehouse staff.
It’s unclear when that vote will happen. Vallejo and his comrades requested a mail-in-ballot, but, according to Vallejo, TCGPlayer’s lawyers rejected it. “We've heard that the company's lawyer has denied a request for a mail-in ballot, at a time when gatherings of more than 10 people are being discouraged in our county and workplaces have been ordered to limit on-site employees to no more than 50 percent of the company,” Vallejo said in a follow up email after our conversation. “As things only look like they're going to get worse, at this point a mail-in ballot is a crucial safety issue.”
TCGPlayer did not return our request for comment, but members of the union’s organizing committee provided Motherboard a copy of the email its CEO Chedy Hampson sent out after receiving the request to unionize on Monday.
“We feel we can provide a better option that captures the best of TCGplayer. In that spirit, it is our obligation to reject this request for immediate recognition and instead ask for a votem,” she said. “We believe that it is in your best interest to decide this matter by voting in a secret ballot election conducted by the National Labor Relations Board.”
Despite everything, Vallejo is hopeful about the future. “There’s a sense of relief and camaraderie,” he said. “Even in the face of everything going on.”