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A tray with Magic the Gathering cards on the table during a game at Endgame in Oakland, Calif., on Thursday, April 17, 2014. Endgame, which opened at its current location 10 years ago, sells only board and miniature games and thrives despite not offering Photo: Carlos Avila Gonzalez/The San Francisco Chronicle via Getty Images

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Tabletop, card game retailers join the game industry’s burgeoning union push

In Wisconsin and Washington, tabletop workers are unionizing

Nicole Carpenter is a senior reporter specializing in investigative features about labor issues in the game industry, as well as the business and culture of games.

The push to unionize workers in the games industry mirrors the momentum of the modern labor movement as a whole. The number of union election petitions is up in 2022, with more workers filing with the National Labor Relations Board to organize their workplaces. And it’s not just making headlines; the data supports the surge, too. Between October 2021 and September this year, 2,510 petitions were filed for union representation, according to the NLRB, representing a 53% increase from last fiscal year. And the moment isn’t just about digital shops. The urge to unionize is spilling over into the tabletop industry as well.

Cards Against Humanity workers at the studio of the same name won the right to form a union in 2020, and workers at Pathfinder publisher Paizo followed soon after. The tabletop and card games industry is expanding into retailers and warehouses at companies like Card Kingdom, Mox Boarding House, and Noble Knight Games.

15 Magic: The Gathering cards arranged in three neat rows on a wood table. They’re in a variety of colors. Photo: Charlie Hall/Polygon

“The gaming industry is kind of a dangerous industry in that it’s work of passion,” Devin Zebertavage, Noble Knight Games digital media specialist, told Polygon. “We do it because we love it. And it’s that perfect storm for any employer who wants to take advantage of their workforce.”

A second Noble Knight Games employee, who asked to speak anonymously, continued: “The tabletop industry is exciting, and it’s fun. I think employers count on that when they offer us wages that aren’t in line with the responsibilities that we’re being asked to have. We love our company. We love the industry. That’s why we’re [here]. We just think that our expertise and our talent deserves better wages, better benefits, and a better working environment.”

Workers at Noble Knight Games, an online board and tabletop game retailer located in Wisconsin, are the latest to file for a union vote with the NLRB. In addition to better pay and environment, workers told Polygon that sick days aren’t a thing at Noble Knight. “It’d be nice to get some of those,” Zebertavage said. “Our PTO is already pretty scant.”

The group, called Noble Knight Games United, filed its petition on Oct. 31 after “years” of prep work, looking to cover an estimated 70 employees who support a physical and online retail store, offices, and warehouse. Zebertavage said talk of a union has been ongoing for years, but Communications Workers of America got involved in May. CWA, for its part, has been a major driving force at video game union shops and has been pushing into tabletop and card gaming, too — unifying digital and tabletop gaming in the shared labor struggle.

Noble Knight leadership denied the union’s request for voluntary recognition despite its 70% support among workers. In the days since that request, Noble Knight has hired a “union avoidance” law firm called National Labor Relations Advocates. The lawyer hired lists his services as helping companies “besieged by union threats and harassment stand up and fight back.” On its blog, the firm provides tips to “maintain control” of a business, referring to unionization as an “attack.” Another blog post considers whether union organizing or COVID-19 is the bigger threat to companies, calling COVID-19 a “temporary pain” while union organizing is a “long-term pain.” Noble Knight Games workers consider this move, hiring National Labor Relations Advocates, a union-busting attempt.

Polygon has reached out to Noble Knight for comment.

Elsewhere in the tabletop industry, Card Kingdom workers, in a group of more than 100 employees spanning a variety of warehouse and grading roles, filed their union petition in May with the United Food and Commercial Workers Union, Local 3000; they won their union election in July. Card Kingdom, based in Washington state, focuses mainly on Magic: The Gathering cards — a collectible that increased dramatically in value during the early years of the COVID-19 pandemic. In its petition, Card Kingdom workers said revenue hit a peak over the past two years without a bump in wages or benefits, on top of stressful workplace conditions, a lack of safety regulations, and cases of repetitive strain injuries.

Workers were also frustrated at big changes made without input of the people most impacted, like adjusted benefits.

“Card Kingdom [moved to] drop COVID protections, to changing our insurance without warning, or reaching out to us for input about any of these sweeping changes that could affect our lives and safety,” Card Kingdom production associate Raevyn Fletcher told Polygon. “Prior to starting at Card Kingdom I was on a waitlist working towards gender affirming care. I was excited to find Card Kingdoms insurance was the same as what I had prior and I would not have to alter my plans, right after I was able to get the health insurance Card Kingdom changed our provider, this I was assured should not set me back things would be fine. Nearly a year later I am working to make up for lost ground after this switch. My story echoes those of other coworkers.“

In June, retail and service workers at Card Kingdom’s retail store and restaurant, Mox Boarding House in Bellevue, Washington, filed a petition to cover nearly 40 employees — also with CWA. In this petition, workers alleged the company has “poor retention of staff” due to low pay and unfair management practices. They’re looking for representation to “protect both ourselves and those who come after us,” workers wrote. Like Card Kingdom workers, the Bellevue Mox Organized Workers won their union vote this year.

Card Kingdom management told Polygon that it’s “welcomed” unions at both its Card Kingdom and Mox Boarding House, Bellevue locations; Card Kingdom is in negotiations now, while Mox Boarding House will enter bargaining soon after winning the vote on Aug. 30.

Mox Boarding House is unique because it spans a wide variety of roles — it’s a restaurant with a full kitchen, a board game cafe, and a retail store. It’s a huge space, with hundreds of board games to play and rent out, plus the shop and its Magic: The Gathering sales business. Cade Herrig, a retail sales associate at Mox, said employees got together and started talking about wages: “Most of us don’t make enough to cover rent by ourselves,” they said. “Most of us don’t get paid enough to make ends meet without having multiple roommates or second jobs or other income streams. It was a very basic mathematical question — we need to be getting more out of this to stay here comfortably.”

Herrig stressed that a lot of the staff wants to stay there, and to be able to stay there. People like working there.

“Gaming, tabletop, board games [...] it’s an industry of passion,” Herrig said. “You see this on the video game side, too, with the instability in career choices and layoffs. Unionization is an incredibly important step towards protecting people and allowing them to work on their passions and work on what they deeply care about while still being able to make ends meet and put food on the table at the end of the day.”

Tabletop and card gaming workers are unionizing for the same reasons anyone else is — “better pay and working conditions, benefits, and having a collective voice on the job that meets with management as an equal,” UFCW 3000 communications director Anna Minard told Polygon. The push forward toward a unionized game industry, which includes tabletop and card gaming workers, is an important way to ensure so-called passion industry workers get “a powerful voice in the workplace so they can earn the compensation and respect everyone should get in exchange for their labor,” she said.

Update (Nov. 10): This story has been updated to include a quote from a Card Kingdom worker.

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