A group of workers at Activision Blizzard have voted to unionize, establishing the first union at a major North American video game company. The National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) counted nineteen ballots in favor of unionizing with the Communications Workers of America (CWA), with three opposed.
The workers, organizing under the banner of Game Workers Alliance, are quality assurance (QA) testers at subsidiary Raven Software, a Wisconsin studio that works on Call of Duty. The testers are responsible for ensuring games run smoothly without any glitches for users.
Their efforts ramped up last year in response to “crunch,” the term for the final phase of game development, which can entail working twelve-to-fourteen-hour days with few, if any, days off for weeks at a time. After Activision laid off twelve QA testers in December, Raven QA testers threatened to walk out, organizing a work stoppage, an action that laid the groundwork for this week’s victory. As one worker at Activision told the Los Angeles Times, the stress of this schedule was compounded by her being a contract worker — a common arrangement in not only the games industry but the broader tech industry as well — which required her to “continually reapply for new positions within the company whenever her contracts end.” Soon after the workers began their union drive in January, Activision announced that it would convert 1,100 temporary QA contract workers to full-time work, raising their wages to $20 an hour.
Overwork isn’t the only issue at Activision. The company, which is also responsible for the World of Warcraft franchise, has faced allegations of sexual harassment and discrimination and recently settled a suit with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) for $18 million. Former Activision employee Jessica Gonzalez is now appealing that settlement because it includes a provision that bars those who apply to be claimants from future settlements.
“The court allowed Activision and the EEOC to keep the affected workers and others who had an interest in holding the company accountable out of the process,” said Gonzalez in a statement from the Campaign to Organize Digital Employees (CODE-CWA), the CWA campaign focused on organizing workers in the video game and tech industries. “Eligible employees should not have to give up their right to pursue other legal remedies if they accept the settlement.”
The California Department of Fair Employment and Housing is currently pursuing a separate lawsuit against Activision. The lawsuit alleges that women are routinely paid less than men for similar work at Activision and that company executives sexually harassed women. Microsoft is currently in the process of acquiring the company for nearly $69 billion. Bloomberg reports that the deal is expected to be completed by June of 2023; the new ownership will likely make organizing even harder for workers at the company, making the timing of the successful vote an important foot in the door for those who hope to unionize a greater proportion of the company.
Current ownership was by no means friendly to the campaign: Activision, which has around ten thousand workers worldwide, declined to voluntarily recognize the union and fought the efforts at both the workplace itself and in the courts, arguing that one department is not an appropriate bargaining unit and that, rather, the unit should include all Raven workers. The NLRB ultimately ruled that the election could move forward with the smaller unit. The issue of employer say over “micro-units” has been a key point of legal squabbling since a Trump-era NLRB ruling gave employers greater say in determining appropriate bargaining units — most prominently, Starbucks has used this tool to wrangle over and thus delay votes at its stores. The NLRB is issuing a complaint against the company for illegally retaliating against pro-union workers, allegations that Activision has denied.
“Activision did everything it could, including breaking the law, to try to prevent the Raven QA workers from forming their union. It didn’t work, and we are thrilled to welcome them as CWA members,” said CWA secretary-treasurer Sara Steffens in a statement following the victory. “Quality assurance workers at Raven Software are bringing much-needed change to Activision and to the video game industry. At this critical time for the company and its employees, these workers will soon have an enforceable union contract and a voice on the job.”
While game worker unions exist in other countries, US companies have kept them out until now. The workers are not the first formal video game union in the country — that title belongs to Vodeo Games workers, who unionized with CODE-CWA late last year — but they are the first at a listed video game company (Vodeo Games is a smaller, independent game studio). Coming during a rise in worker organizing not only in the $85 billion games industry but in other parts of the private sector as well, the Game Workers Alliance’s win at Activision signals that it is possible to win a union at a large and virulently anti-union company.
“Five months ago, we formed the Game Workers Alliance-CWA on the principles of solidarity, sustainability, transparency, equity, and diversity,” said members of Game Workers Alliance (CWA) in a statement released following the victory. “Activision Blizzard worked tirelessly to undermine our efforts to establish our union, but we persevered. . . . Our biggest hope is that our union serves as inspiration for the growing movement of workers organizing at video game studios to create better games and build workplaces that reflect our values and empower all of us.”