- Interview by
- Sara Wexler
On Wednesday, January 25, workers at TCGPlayer, an online marketplace for trading card games acquired by eBay last November, announced that they had filed for a union election with the National Labor Relations Board. An initial unionization push came in late 2019 or early 2020, according to workers, but was derailed by the COVID pandemic; the most recent organizing drive began in summer 2022. The union is affiliating with the Communications Workers of America (CWA).
Since announcing plans for a union election, CWA has filed two unfair labor practice (ULP) charges against TCGPlayer. The first, filed on January 27, accuses the company of engaging in unlawful surveillance; the second, filed February 6, charges that TCGPlayer has illegally forced employees to attend mandatory anti-union meetings. Jacobin’s Sara Wexler spoke with TCGPlayer workers about their unionization efforts and the company’s attempts at union busting.
What sparked the campaign to unionize? Were there certain workplace conditions or incidents?
Ebay acquired us, and there was a lot of uncertainty, like “What is our job going to be like? How much reach are they going to have in our company?” We’ve been having issues with wanting a living wage — being able to afford to live would be great —and wanting our voices to be heard, because we are experts. We don’t just get hired and then go through a week of training; it’s months at a time of training in how to do our jobs, and even more training the further you get in. Our jobs aren’t simple, and for a lot of people, this is their passion: trading card games, Pokémon, Yu-Gi-Oh!, Magic: The Gathering. People love these things so much and know so much about it, but it feels like often management doesn’t listen to what we say. We know best because we do this job every day, we work with cards every day, and people actually participate in competitions with these card games.
We want to be heard and have a say in how our jobs are done because we all really love where we work. It’s probably the best job I’ve ever had, and I’ve heard a lot of my coworkers say the same thing. We want to keep our workplace a great place to work; we don’t want that taken away, especially by a huge corporation like eBay.
There was the organizing attempt a couple years ago that the pandemic ended up causing to fizzle out. The working conditions that they were fighting at that point never really got much better. The company has exploded in growth since then, and the efforts of management to make the work and conditions of individual workers better haven’t been focused on the issues that we’ve brought up in the past.
There’s certainly the suggestion that management is open to discussion, to feedback and stuff like that. But when feedback is given, especially across the board, a little more universally, they don’t tend to follow through much. It’s funny to see the switch since we’ve started openly organizing in the office. Suddenly, they are more interested in hearing things out, seeing the collective power that we can display. Just a few days after we went public, there were several follow-ups on things that had been buried in the past.
How did the organizing happen? Was it mostly through in-person conversations? Did you have to use online mechanisms?
There was a lot of chat over Discord, in-person meetings; at lunch break, you start talking about it. We didn’t want to be caught by management and have them know what was up too early. So it was a lot of hush-hush in the beginning when we were talking about it.
I was in the receiving department and had just switched to shipping at the beginning of the organizing attempt. It involved rapid-fire meeting a lot of new people and also trying to find out how they felt about the concept of organizing. A whirlwind of a lot of one-on-one conversations, lunches with people — we get long lunches to play Commander or Magic. It’s helpful to be able to share over a game casually; you don’t necessarily need to be friends with the person to sit across from them at the table and be able to chat with them like, “Hey, how do you feel about the conditions that we’re all under?” A lot of discussion in our organizing channels on Discord was like, “Hey, I’m having this lunch game today with this particular person. Does any other organizer feel like that they can hop into the game with us and give me an assist on that?”
How has the company responded so far? I know the union has filed two ULP charges.
The company has publicly stated that they don’t think that a union is good for the workplace. The first ULP was for unlawful surveillance. They had management walking around to everybody’s desks, keeping track of what people were wearing and what people were talking about. Even our CEO, Chedy Hampson, was walking around, seemingly trying to listen in. It was unlawful surveillance, seeing if they could try to union bust on the floor.
There was a day where we started wearing red. It took them a couple hours to notice something was up. Then we started passing out pins, wristbands, and lanyards. It became evident very quickly that something was up, but we hadn’t actually filed [for a union election] yet. That’s when we started gathering signatures; there was no direct communication with management.
So management started walking around and checking on people’s desks, and it seemed like managers would take extra trips around the floor just to check things out. It was all under the guise of things normally happening, but it wasn’t normal. One of my coworkers near me mentioned that he hadn’t seen a particular manager ever come over to this side of the room before, and it was just odd. There were several workers that were surprised to see Chedy around in the building.
We filed another ULP this morning [February 6] against them for holding captive audience meetings and trying to disseminate anti-union sentiment, mandatorily, to everyone at once. We have town hall meetings for the entire company and then all-hands meetings for just the things that are happening inside the authentication center. Those are typically regarded as mandatory viewing; if you’re not in on the day that they’re presented, then you watch them the next day that you’re in, and you’re responsible for knowing all the information there.
They used one of those to discuss anti-union sentiment. Chedy himself read something from the anti-union lawyers they ended up hiring, who wrote him a speech to read off during the meeting. A week or so ago, they gathered everyone up for a huddle, pulled everyone off the floor, and told us that they didn’t feel like a union was right for TCGPlayer.
They’ve used every opportunity that they can. So far, we’ve started to see a little uptick in severity, not very much, but it’s been like, “We don’t feel like a union is right for TCGPlayer. We don’t feel like the CWA, this third-party organization, should have a say in what your workers’ rights are.” It’s very by the book, and it’s very stereotypical jargon. It’s been good to see a lot of people in the unit seeing through some of the stuff that management is throwing at us.
What are the concrete demands you’re making? What would you envision the contract demands being?
The highest thing on most people’s list is better pay. Not only do we want a living wage, but we are experts; we do have more of a niche in what we do. Not just anyone can walk in off the street and do our job — it takes months of training. So that should be reflected in our pay and disability accommodations.
Right now, it is really hard for people with disabilities to get any kind of accommodation. It’s either none at all or so slow that the original problem gets worse and worse. Our time-off policies are not built to help anyone with disabilities. Often, people get write-ups because they have something bad happen or what have you, and they’re not covered. It feels like oftentimes management doesn’t care. So having a more empathetic approach to disability and making it more of a priority for the company to care about its own workers is something that we’re working toward.
There are a lot of quality-of-life changes that can be made around the workplace, and there are promises that can and should be fulfilled. There are a lot of things that would be a lot easier for all of us if we had a seat at the table. Trying to get approval for accommodations for disabilities, for mental illness situations — that should realistically be simple, and in some cases, it doesn’t even cost the company anything. But there is a bottleneck in trying to communicate with the proper channels and HR and get accommodation. It can be a bizarrely lengthy process for people that are already struggling more than usual.
How do you imagine a union changing your workplace environment?
Already, with the union being public, there’s a palpable feeling of togetherness, of solidarity. Seeing everyone with their pins or their lanyards, wearing red — it makes us all feel close together, that we’re looking out for each other. Because that’s what a union is. It’s holding management accountable, giving us power, but also just looking out for each other, making sure we’re all getting what we deserve, and making sure we’re all safe and that we aren’t afraid every time we go to work that we’ll be written up for something.
Have you faced any challenges in organizing, whether that be internal or external?
It’s always an issue, I think, for any people who are trying to build a union: learning how to approach people, and especially people that you don’t know, because you want everyone to be involved. You want everyone to be on board, so that when the time comes and voting happens, the union will go through.
So one of the challenges is reaching out to people; a lot of people can be really socially awkward, and it’s not always easy. But one thing I really admire about our union is that everyone’s so happy to help people and encourage people, willing to work with them, to talk to other people and get them involved.
Do you think that your action will inspire other workplaces to unionize in the industry?
It’s interesting to experience being part of history, and knowing that we’re going to be the first to unionize under eBay, which is such a big company that has lasted for so long. I hope that sends a message to people working at Starbucks who are trying to unionize; people who are working at Amazon, I hope it gives them inspiration — that you can do this against a big corporation. It is possible. It’s a lot of hard work, but it’s worth it.
Did you notice any changes when eBay acquired TCGPlayer? Did the acquisition help motivate people to fight for a union?
Functionally, the company has mostly been the same. Attitude-wise, it is different. Not everybody was happy when out of the blue one day, we get this message that we’ve been acquired by eBay, and no one was told before. We found out when the public found out, or five minutes before the public found out. People were so confused, so disheartened, because it’s a huge corporation and anything could happen. They could completely take over, and the atmosphere and the community that we had all built over those years — all of that could just go away. That was a really big fear I know a lot of people had. But it made people realize that we need to take this into our own hands; we need to do something about it. If we unionize, then we get to have our benefits and everything in writing, and the company can’t change it.
With the acquisition, suddenly, we had this huge catalyst to work with and rally behind. Even those who were okay with the working conditions and happy with how things work realized that there was this huge possibility that they could get worse.