color photograph of a worker walking in the mid-distance in front of a large sign with the ebay logo. the letters are all lower case, with each letter a different color: red, blue, yellow, and green
SAN JOSE, CALIFORNIA - FEBRUARY 22: A sign is posted in front of eBay headquarters on Feb. 22, 2023, in San Jose, California. (Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

Workers at the prominent trading card retailer TCGplayer made history in March when they successfully won their union election, becoming the first company in eBay’s history to form a union. Now, five months later, TCGplayer representatives have finally agreed to come to the negotiating table. But while there is faith among workers in the movement they have built, concerns about unfair bargaining remain.

The fight to secure the union’s first bargaining session has been grueling. Workers voted 136-87 to unionize under the Communications Workers of America banner back in March, but it wasn’t until early August that eBay and TCGplayer recognized the union at its authentication center in Syracuse, New York. Close to 300 workers are employed at the center, where they authenticate about 100,000 cards per day that are used in games like Magic: The Gathering and Pokemon.

After the vote, the companies contended that some voting workers should not have been allowed to be included in the bargaining unit due to their alleged managerial-like duties. They appealed the election outcome based on these allegations with the National Labor Relations Board. The workers’ petition to the NLRB to form a union had expressly excluded management-level employees from the bargaining unit. That appeal was rejected Aug. 10, when the NLRB deliberated that the companies’ appeal “raises no substantial issues warranting review.”

Days after the appeal was denied, workers said via a social media post eBay and TCGplayer had recognized the union and would work to open negotiations with workers.

“It is imperative that our community continues to hold eBay to their promise to bargain in good faith for the benefit of both workers and customers,” workers said in a post on X, formerly known as Twitter. “As enthusiasts and players ourselves, when we exercise our voice on the job as workers, we all win.”

The news was a source of optimism for workers, as the company had allegedly refused to bargain based on the pending appeal with the NLRB. Workers filed several unfair labor practice (ULP) claims in July, accusing the company of unilateral changes to current working conditions, refusing to bargain and furnish information, and making threats signaling the loss of potential benefits if workers went through with the unionizing process.

“They tried to tell us that they wouldn’t be able to guarantee any of our benefits,” said Briana Thomas, a member of the union’s organizing committee. “Then they listed out a very, very long list of all of the things that they provide to us.”

Those ULP investigations with the NLRB are still open, according to the board’s website. eBay and TCGplayer representatives could not be reached for comment regarding the allegations, the companies’ policies on workers’ unions, or any indication of when negotiations could start. 

Despite the delays, workers are now gearing up to negotiate with the company.

“We are currently engaging our union about the issues that matter most to them, so we can best represent them at the table and negotiate a contract that is beneficial to the entire bargaining unit,” said Robert Guy, a member of the union’s organizing committee and a longtime employee. 

Guy said workers are cautiously optimistic about any upcoming bargaining sessions. A source of concern, he said, is the outsized presence of Littler Mendelson, a popular anti-union law firm. Throughout the unionizing process, eBay has retained counsel from Littler Mendelson, which has come under scrutiny with the NLRB for its work representing Starbucks stores nationwide in its efforts to squash unionization efforts. TCGplayer had initially hired Littler Mendelson in 2020, after workers had petitioned to unionize.

“There was a fair bit of negative backlash toward [TCGplayer] about that and how specifically nobody really felt like Littler Mendelson represented the core values, the personality, and culture of TCGplayer well at all,” Guy said. 

The company ended up firing the firm following the backlash. Guy said it was a shock to workers when, after eBay acquired TCGplayer in 2022, management brought Littler Mendelson back to try to disempower what ended up being a successful union vote. 

“eBay and TCGplayer have fought against our union from the moment we went public with our campaign,” Guy said. “While we are hopeful that TCGplayer will honor its commitment to bargaining in good faith, we are still prepared to fight for our coworkers and to fight for a fair first contract.”

Guy said there isn’t yet a date when negotiations will commence but noted both parties are in the process of setting up those conversations.

What workers are looking for

Thomas, who has been with TCGplayer since 2019, said she was initially attracted due to her love for the Magic: The Gathering community and the company’s mission. 

“I loved their core values—wanting to create a community for all, motivating each other, and encouraging just such a great community of workers,” she said.

Thomas works as a shipping generalist, packaging cards bought by players worldwide. But much like other workers at TCGplayer, she wants democratic control of her workplace. 

“We are arguing basically for more of a say in what we do,” Thomas said. “We are experts in what we do, in the products that we handle, but they don’t listen to us.”

Early on in the unionization process, workers identified four main pillars of their union campaign: better pay, more substantial benefits, transparency and fairness in how performance is measured, and accommodations for workers with disabilities.

Thomas said workers have not received a cost of living adjustment since 2021. That raise was initially worked out with the company after workers decided to withdraw a unionization petition with the NLRB in 2020. The idea to unionize came after layoffs hit the company and the COVID-19 pandemic worsened economic and working conditions. The working environment largely remained the same, Thomas said, which sparked a second union push that became public earlier this year. 

Unaffordable benefits, Thomas added, were part of what spurred that push.

“I personally know of at least a handful of people that just don’t have benefits right now because they cannot afford to pay for the premiums,” she said. That could be subject to change as the company undergoes its integration with eBay, but Thomas said she expects benefits to stay unattainable for some.

She added that accommodations for disabled workers are also “severely lacking.”

“Even getting something as simple as just a chair to sit down in for part of your shift is impossible,” Thomas said. 

Guy knows that struggle firsthand. One of the main draws of the role was the ability to work a job that did not require him to stand for 10-12 hours a day the way he was used to during his prior work experiences.

“I needed to get into work that got me off my feet, and for the first six years I was here, that was fine,” he said.

Guy was eventually diagnosed with plantar fasciitis on both feet. A podiatrist recommended he kept work that required him to stand for long hours at a minimum. But last year, Guy said, supervisors started to move workers into different roles during their shifts.

“They started really grabbing employees and moving them around to where they needed them with very little concern for what their skill set was or what they could or couldn’t do physically,” he said.

Guy was then asked to do work that required him to walk around the facility.  

“The pain in my feet and ankles immediately became a big problem,” he said. 

In the next two or three months, Guy said, company officials told him that the doctor’s requests for accommodations would interfere with the core functions of Guy’s job.

“They were saying that that was unacceptable, to have to sit down for 75% of my day,” he said, “and basically sent me back to my doctor to see if there was something else that he could advise.”

Eventually, the company made accommodations for Guy’s condition, but he said there were other employees with similar disabilities who have not been able to advocate for themselves in the same way.

“They have … gotten the same runaround and ultimately just given up on the process because they don’t have the time or the resources to spend fighting with their employer over this process,” he said.

The company’s way of measuring efficiency and productivity has also been frustrating to Guy and other workers. Guy, who supervised and helped install the company’s nighttime operations, said workers do not understand how productivity is measured. He noted the formula the company has instituted to measure how workers perform is broken and has been shut down by supervisors in the past.

“A lot of the tracking relies on the honor system and self-reporting from employees,” he said. “The tools themselves are nonfunctional.”

Despite that, these productivity measures are the only way for workers to be compensated for outperforming expectations. 

“The longer those things stay broken, that makes it basically impossible for a supervisor to go to HR, to go to finance, and say this person deserves a raise,” he said.

Beyond improving material conditions, pushing for a union has also been about making TCGplayer a better place for all.

“We love what we do. We love our community, and we even love TCGplayer,” Thomas said. “A lot of us are players ourselves, so part of this is that we want to make it better not only for workers, but also for the customers.”