Activision worker votes could give unions a foothold in the game

Jessica Gonzalez can sometimes hear the eerie theme music from one of the Call of Duty video games in her head. She jokes that as she gets older, the soundtrack will play over and over again in her subconscious.

In the mid-2010s, Ms. Gonzalez spent several months as a quality assurance tester working 14-hour night shifts at the Activision Blizzard office in Los Angeles.

29-year-old Ms. “It’s dystopian,” Gonzalez said. “It’s really tiring at times because it feels like pouring from an empty cup.”

Ms. Gonzalez and other QA testers coined the term “crunching” in the video game industry to refer to long periods of intensive work before a game was released. Employees often work shifts of up to 12 to 14 hours per day, with only one or two days off each month.

Complaints about working conditions for video game companies are Ms. Gonzalez has increased over the years due to anger over the period of crisis she experienced and poor pay, her temporary contract and sexual harassment at her workplace.

Now, some game workers are considering forming a trade union that was unimaginable just a few years ago. Their interest has led workers to believe that low unemployment can give workers more influence over their employers, in part, and last year there was a lawsuit that exposed Activision’s sexual harassment and discrimination issues.

About 20 quality assurance staff from Raven Software, a subsidiary of Activision, will vote on whether to unionize on Monday. If successful, Raven workers will form the Game Workers Alliance, the first union of major North American video game publishers. Although a small group, it will be a symbolic victory for the organizers, who believe that game industry players are ready to join the union.

Ms. Ms., who formed ABetterABK, an activist group of Activision workers who have been calling for a change in the company’s culture since the lawsuit in July. . Gonzalez said she left Activision last year and now works for Communications Workers of America, a union that Raven helped organize.

Activision, which has about 10,000 employees worldwide, challenged whether QA employees could form a union without the participation of all 230 Raven employees. “I think everyone in our studio should have a say in this important decision,” said company spokesperson Kelvin Liu.

People in the gaming industry often hear from outsiders that things can’t be that bad because they make money by playing games. But to Blake Lotter, another former Activision QA employee who crunched while developing 2020’s Call of Duty: Cold War, clicking games for up to 14 hours while sipping an energy drink to keep him awake is mind-numbing. It was.

“You can really like any food, but if you only eat the same food for a few months to a year, you will start to hate it,” he said. “It will feel like work or punishment.” (Liu said the company is creating “a flexible workplace culture where our teams can balance work and personal needs.”)

In other countries, such as Australia and the UK, it is common for game workers to join unions. But in North America, unions have not yet settled among game studios.

However, in 2018, a group of game developers formed an organization called Game Workers Unite, which created local chapters to encourage union efforts in various cities. The following year, dozens of Riot Games employees took a stand to protest a lawsuit accusing the company of having a sexist and toxic culture. The female employee was later awarded $100 million in a sexism settlement. Large game studios like Ubisoft face lawsuits and activist workshops demanding improvement.

Employees of a small studio called Vodeo Games formed North America’s first gaming union in December. That month, a handful of picketers for game workers in Southern California, a fast-growing labor organization, drew attention as industry executives, developers and celebrities put on a glamorous show outside the Los Angeles Games Awards that month.

In April, contract workers at Canadian development studio BioWare announced they would form a union. Around the same time, a Nintendo employee sued the company with the National Labor Relations Commission, claiming that Nintendo had “fired him for joining or applying to a union.”

news aroused new interest Nintendo’s treatment of its employees, especially QA employees, has been relegated to the lowest floors of development studios with temporary contracts, making many feel like second-class citizens.

Nintendo said in a statement that an employee was fired for disclosing confidential information and the company was “committed to providing a welcoming and supportive work environment”.

It all adds to an environment where gaming employees are more willing than ever to talk about perceived injustice and become more curious about collective organizations, especially when looking at the labor campaigns of companies like Amazon, Apple, and Starbucks.

“I think it’s one of those real experiments where game workers are exploring their options in a fairly open way,” said Johanna Weststar, associate professor of gaming labour at Western University, Ontario. industry.

Professor Weststar has diverted some of his attention to gaming activity from union-led campaigns like the CWA, which discovered the gaming industry was “a huge untapped market.” She said Monday’s vote was “low fruit” for union activity. Because it affects the small group of temporary workers who are most likely to want the organization, she said.

“A larger studio with a more permanent and stable workforce will actually be more talkative or more formative when it comes to unionization,” said Professor Weststar.

The vote on Monday came months after employees at Raven, a Wisconsin studio that helps develop Activision’s flagship Call of Duty game, resigned in protest after the company terminated about a dozen Raven QA worker contracts. . Activision, which was acquired by Microsoft for $70 billion after employees announced unionization in January, said it would not voluntarily recognize the group.

Soon after, the company said it would spread its QA staff across different departments in Raven Studio. It also said it would convert Activision’s more than 1,000 temporary QA contractors into full-time positions, raise their salaries to $20 an hour and provide more benefits. Workers who organize unions will not be affected, Activision said, as federal labor laws prohibit inducing workers to vote against unions by raising salaries or benefits ahead of elections. (The CWA rejected this claim.)

Activision also argued to the NLRB that it was no longer a bargaining unit because Raven QA workers were scattered throughout the studio, and that all Raven studio workers should be eligible to vote. The board rejected these claims and told workers to mail their ballots to be counted on Monday. If a majority approves, workers will unionize until there is opposition to the voting process.

Employees at Activision and elsewhere will keep a close eye on it. They say they are already looking to improve benefits such as pay raises by putting pressure on employers.

“This has happened because of how hard we’ve been pushing and there’s been a lot of pressure on senior management,” said Jiji Saari, Minneapolis-based Activision QA employee. “We know we can’t settle down or lose too much power.”

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