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Workers roll for solidarity at a Fitchburg game retailer

Noble Knight Games voluntarily recognized the workers’ union after a month-long standoff.
Three fists are raised in front of a knight’s shield. The center fist is holding a pair of dice. An explosion radiates from behind the fists and shield; exploding out are a halo of polyhedral dice. End image description.
Illustration by M.Rose Sweetnam.

Noble Knight Games voluntarily recognized the workers’ union after a month-long standoff.

Workers at a Fitchburg game store and warehouse will enjoy new protections after their employer chose to voluntarily recognize their union, following in the steps of a slew of other workforces in their industry and the Madison area.

Noble Knight Games employees were supposed to cast secret ballots on December 8 on the question of unionizing with the Communications Workers of America. But the company, which first called for the vote in the face of overwhelming support for a union within its workforce, reversed course December 1.

“Now that we’ve had more time, and after careful discussion and hearing employee feedback directly, Noble Knight Games has made the decision to voluntarily recognize the [Communication Workers of America] as our workers union,” says an email sent from the company’s vice president to employees and obtained by Tone Madison. “We plan on being reasonable and negotiating in good faith during the bargaining process.”

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The December 8 election, which was supposed to be overseen by the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB), will be called off.

“Relieved, very relieved,” says Devin Zebertavage when asked how the recognition from management makes him feel. Zebertavage serves on the union effort’s organizing committee and represents half of Noble Knight’s marketing team. “It’s also nice to not have to go through the stress that’s involved with [the election] as well.”

Workers organizing in favor of a union had accused Noble Knight’s management of engaging in “weeks of anti-union activity,” according to a November 21 press release. 

Organizers and company ownership had hammered out an agreement in mid-November as to which workers would be eligible to vote in the election. Those workers will now join the ranks of the Communications Workers of America (CWA).

A large enough percentage of workers signed union authorization cards that an election would have been unnecessary, but Noble Knight’s ownership pressed for one regardless, and made attempts to push back on the unionization effort.

Noble Knight’s about face follows a poor reception to union-busting tactics from employees and customers alike.

There are knights in Fitchburg?

Noble Knight Games on Commerce Park Drive is a local institution in the multi-billion-dollar industry of board games and role-playing games.

Of the company’s approximately 75 employees, 58 will comprise the union. Do you think 75 sounds like a lot of people for a single board game shop to employ? You’re not alone. It’s a sentiment that Zebertavage has heard many times. 

“Most people that come into the physical store, it seems like they don’t realize all of that building is us,” he says. Noble Knight occupies a 48,000 square foot building dominated by a warehouse where most of the company’s employees work.

Locals would be forgiven for thinking of Noble Knight as another small game store competing with other local outlets like Pegasus Games, a tabletop game shop on Madison’s west side widely recognized for having pioneered the game store concept locally. The area boasts a healthy constellation of such outlets—including I’m Board!, Misty Mountain Games, and Mox Mania—and a robust subculture of Magic: The Gathering players. While Noble Knight boasts a sizable retail space in the front of its building, a warehouse and office space takes up the majority of its footprint.

The business ships new and used games around the world. It began humbly in 1997 in Janesville when owner Aaron Leeder sold some of his old Dungeons & Dragons rulebooks for more than he had originally purchased them. He realized a market for out-of-print games existed, and enlisted the help of his brother, Dan Leeder, who would become the company’s vice president. The Leeders stored new and old games in several warehouses scattered across the Janesville area before logistical issues with that setup demanded building their current location in Fitchburg’s industrial park. The building opened in the fall of 2018.

Business, according to Zebertavage, boomed in the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic as people searched for anything to occupy their lockdown downtime, turning to tabletop games. The retail space also outperformed expectations, likely thanks at least in part to its welcoming and knowledgeable staff, who have never hesitated to scour their warehouse’s inventory for the exact deck box I covet.

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Exterior view of of Noble Knight Games, a large commercial building with castle-themed signs.
Noble Knight Games sits in an industrial park on Fitchburg’s west side. The business opened in 2018.

Want money? Don’t get sick

Noble Knight’s success did not trickle down to the workers, most of whom, according to Zebertavage, make between $13 and $15 per hour. Many rely on significant others with better-paying jobs to subsidize their work at Noble Knight.

“I just see a lot of good people with knowledge and experience walking out the door because they can’t afford to work there anymore,” Zebertavage says.

The business offers employees no paid sick days. This policy did not change during the pandemic when government recommendations included 14 days of isolation for those who tested positive. Instead, workers had to use the 40 hours of paid time off they do have or forgo paychecks.

“No sick days during a global pandemic is wild to me,” Zebertavage says. 

The November 21 press release from Noble Knight Games United, the employee-led organizing effort that will now become the local bargaining unit, said that the workers also needed a union to secure healthier work-life balance by limiting mandatory overtime hours. Zebertavage says that warehouse employees have no idea on any given day how late they will have to work, since management requires they stay until all orders are shipped. 

“And so you don’t know on any given day whether you’re working six hours, 10 hours, 14 hours,” Zebertavage says. “How do you balance work and life when you have no idea how long you’re going to be at work any [given] day?”

Organizers also want clearer policies surrounding hiring and promotion, affordable benefits, and wages commensurate with Madison’s cost of living.

Zebertavage says he does not consider $15 per hour a living wage, referring to Madison’s rising rents as a major drain on employee finances. He himself pays $1,500 per month for a two-bedroom apartment on the city’s far west side. He counts himself lucky that he has a landlord with whom he has a functioning relationship, as opposed to dealing with a merciless corporate property management company.

Housing prices in Madison are rising in part because the city isn’t adding new housing units quickly enough. According to one city report, Wisconsin’s capital is about one year’s worth of development behind on the number of apartments it needs. And every year, as the city grows, Madison needs more housing units than it did the year before. On top of that mess, private developers see more profit in building expensive market-rate units and allowing some to sit empty as opposed to renting them all out at a rate people can actually afford.

Passionate pushback

Gaming industry employees often make less than their fellow workers in other industries, as employers take advantage of their workers’ passion for their job and let that zeal substitute for money and healthcare. Zebertavage says Noble Knight’s employees keep working for the company despite low pay and suboptimal benefits because of their love for games.

Gaming industry workers have pushed back in recent months. Noble Knight Games United has drawn direct parallels between its union drive and successful unionization pushes at other gaming companies like quality assurance testers at Raven Software, a Middleton-based subsidiary of powerhouse video game developer Activision Blizzard, and United Pazio Workers, a union at a Washington-based tabletop roleplaying game company whose products Noble Knight sells.

In both of those cases, workers organized to curb exploitative practices that preyed on their desires to labor in the gaming space. 

Raven’s quality assurance testers, who work on games including entries in the Call Of Duty series, walked off the job in December 2021 when some of their fellow workers were fired after moving at their own expense to the Madison area. The laid-off workers had taken temporary QA jobs with the understanding that those jobs would soon be converted to full-time positions. The company eventually caved and recognized their union—as did Microsoft, which is currently fighting an uphill battle to acquire Activision.

In the days before management voluntarily recognized the union, the company’s customers joined in solidarity with the workers they rely on to get their board-gaming addiction fix. One patron set up a Change.org petition to demand the company recognize the union.

“In response to these events, us Gamers and Customers would like to show our support for the hard working and kind employees of [Noble Knight Games],” the petition says. “We believe they have the right to unionize, and that NKG should recognize said union.”

At the time of this writing, the petition had garnered 78 signatures, an impressive amount for a petition aimed at a hyper local audience with a niche interest.

On a recent trip into Noble Knight’s storefront, I noticed a smattering of people wearing pro-union buttons and wristbands, sitting at the tables Noble Knight sets out for people to play games in the store.

Zebertavage credits a one-two punch combo of support from customers and organized labor. 

“I think they kind of saw that this was something that not only their employees wanted, but the industry as a whole wanted to see, be honored,” he says.

Interior view of Noble Knight Games' retail space with shelves of games, display cases, customers browsing and employees working.
The retail space represented a break from when Noble Knight Games built its Fitchburg warehouse. Prior to 2018, the business operated without a physical location accessible to casual shoppers.

Supporting the business = supporting the workers

Despite the lack of pay, benefits, and other shortcomings by management Zebertavage alluded to in a recent interview with Tone Madison, he stressed that he wanted customers sympathetic to the unionization effort to continue shopping at Noble Knight. The November 21 press release from Noble Knight Games United echoed the sentiment. 

“Noble Knight Games workers are not calling for a boycott,” the release says. “A decline in business could provide an excuse for ownership to cut staff.”

Such fears of well-intentioned “taking my business elsewhere” having adverse consequences for unions come from other organizing attempts. Workers at a Madison screen printing shop who recently won the right to unionize after a contentious and well-publicized fight with the owner have found themselves out of jobs. Their employer used declining sales to justify selling the machines the unionizing staff operated before the results of the union election had even been tallied. Their new union is now pressing the NLRB to order the workers reinstated, but the future is far from certain.

Instead of a boycott, organizers asked those who wished to demonstrate their support for the union to mention the solidarity phrase and hashtag used by Noble Knight Games United, #WeRollTogether, either when checking out at the physical store or in the notes field on their online orders. The workers also suggested tagging the company in social media posts promoting the union effort in order to demonstrate community support.

So far, customers have shown up for the union and respectfully shown their solidarity. 

“It’s been very overwhelming for 70 nerds in Wisconsin,” Zebertavage says.

Setting fires and holding captives

Despite the desire for good relations with management, the road to forming a union has not run smooth.

The organizers registered support for a union with the NLRB on Halloween, having gotten an estimated 70 percent of their fellow workers to sign union authorization cards. Such a wide margin of signatories is well beyond the threshold needed to trigger an election and enough to render a vote a forgone collusion. However, Noble Knight’s ownership initially pushed for the election. 

Zebertavage had hoped the owner, Aaron Leeder, would opt to recognize the union without first going to election. Zebertavage tried to brush off the move and keep himself open to a working relationship with his bosses. That attitude paid off when Leeder did eventually come around to recognizing the union, but he did not do so until many other avenues to avoid unionization closed.

The company, intentionally or otherwise, took a pair of steps that would lead to an outcome more in its favor. 

First, managers hired National Labor Relations Advocates, a law firm that, despite its name, is no friend of unions. 

“A union takeover of your workforce would burn down your business as you know it today,” the firm’s website says. “The analogy may seem like hyperbole, but I assure you, forced unionization of your company would be every bit as destructive as setting fire to your facility and not having fire insurance.”

Let’s set aside the fact that unions would themselves go up in smoke if they threw (I’m assuming) proverbial molotov cocktails at their members’ place of employment. Instead we will focus on how management torched their own hopes of prevailing in the union election and thus making recognizing the union voluntarily their best course.

A North Carolina attorney employed by National Labor Relations Advocates traveled up to Fitchburg in early November and held a series of presentations known as “captive audience meetings” for small groups of union election-eligible employees. The sessions are so-called because they compel attendance of workers on company time to hear anti-union messages. Employers cannot order their employees to vote against unionization, but bosses can tell workers that a union will disrupt normal business and communication.

Zebertavage says presenters in the meetings did just that, but the company sent the lawyer home after three days due to the poor reception from employees. In some instances, workers came to tears in the meetings over the emotions of the situation and disappointment in management.

Noble Knight Vice President Dan Leeder continued the captive audience meetings, but in more intimate one-on-one sessions.

If anything, Zebertavage says, the captive audience meetings only served to steel the resolve of those who had expressed support for a union. It also gave Noble Knight Games United’s social media profiles something to post about and again roil support for the organizers’ cause.

The company did not respond to multiple requests for comment.

A 360-degree view of Noble Knight Games' expansive warehouse with rows and rows of shelves holding used and out of print games to be stored and shipped.
A 360-degree view of Noble Knight Games’ expansive warehouse where used and out of print games are stored and shipped.

Sure, you work, but are you a “worker?”

As a second step that would limit the union’s hold within the company, Noble Knight Games Inc. haggled with union organizers in mid November over which of the company’s workers would be eligible to participate in the election and thus join the resulting union.

Of the 36 employees whose voting rights were challenged by management, the company got their way with only 12 while the remaining 24 joined their coworkers in union eligibility. One group of employees over which the two sides negotiated was the business’ team leads.

Like any corporation, Noble Knight Games has a hierarchy. Workers report to managers. Management holds the power unless the workers unionize. It’s the classic dynamic at play in nearly every unionization fight. Including management in a union would make little sense. To this end, the company is incentivized to claim workers are members of management. But are they? As it turns out, the answer is murky.

Zebertavage looked back over his two years with Noble Knight and recounted a pattern he had noticed with promotions: titles had been watered down. Ownership gave positions once called “manager” the more nebulous title of “team lead” or another equally euphemistic turn of phrase.

The concept of a “team lead” often is meant to designate a person who can assign tasks to employees but usually lacks any say in the direction of the company or the ability to hire and fire. They’re kind of bosses, but then again not exactly, creating a gray area management can exploit in union fights like this.

Zebertavage says the only tangible benefits of a promotion to a team lead position within the company are a $1 per hour pay raise and inconsistent increases in PTO. Ensuring robust and consistent benefits of promotion is one of the central points the union intends to push for during upcoming contract negotiations.

End in sight

Zebertavage feels like the whole process of unionization had rushed past him up until the email came through announcing the company’s decision to voluntarily recognize the union. Now, the process has slowed and it becomes a waiting game until contract negotiations begin.

The two sides have yet to schedule a time to sit down and begin hashing out an agreement. Before that can happen, the workers will have to elect their bargaining committee members.

Discussions of forming a union began years before Zebertavage arrived at the company. But as in so many other recent union drives, the pandemic proved a catalyst as workers found themselves deprived of protections or cut out of additional profits their bosses earned off worker labor.

In the case of Noble Knight, Zebertavage couldn’t identify one inciting incident that pushed him and his fellow employees to take up the campaign for a union. Rather, a series of small transgressions slowly wore down their tolerance for the current power dynamics.

“All the little things were growing into a big ball of distaste,” Zebertavage says.

Now workers have seized new leverage.

But with the prospect of contract negotiations on the horizon, more work remains. During the few weeks when it appeared the issue of unionizing the shop would go to election, Zebertavage says that management told workers that they wanted to help bridge the gap with their employees and would begin to make changes in their business if the union effort got out of the way. Workers chose to forgo that handshake deal arrangement in favor of making their bosses put their guarantees in writing.

“I think people are really just looking forward to the ways that this will have an effect on their day-to-day experience at work,” says Zebertavage. “I think people were heartened by management’s reaction this way, after the initial pushback.”

This article has been updated to accurately reflect Devin Zebertavage’s rent.

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