Screen shot courtesy of Activision Blizzard
On a quiet Zoom call yesterday, a historic event occurred: The quality assurance team at Raven Software, one of the studios behind Call of Duty Warzone, voted to unionize. The vote wasn’t even close, with 19 votes in favor, three votes against. It was a landslide.It’s easy to take this moment for granted or inevitable, given the endless ugly headlines surrounding Activision Blizzard’s conduct in the last year. It’s a company under heavy criticism, entirely of its own doing, and because of how it did (and didn’t) treat its workers. One consequence of those actions is the first union at a major video game publisher in the U.S.Forming a union is one step, negotiating a contract is another, messier one. But it’s worth taking stock of what’s happened, why there’s so much anti-union sentiment in a country dominated by corporate power, and what Activision Blizzard’s response to the union tells us. I recently sat down with my colleague Rob Zacny and we talked it out, as part of an ongoing series we’re doing at Waypoint. Previous entries include discussions about Microsoft buying Activision Blizzard and Sony buying Bungie.
Patrick: It’s true that Raven Software’s QA team forming a union is not the first video game union in the United States, and it’s true that video game unions already exist in other parts of the world. But Rob, this moment, even if it only applies to a few dozen workers at a mega-publisher with thousands of employees, feels like a huge moment that we’ll look back on a decade from now. It’s one thing for video game developers to tell a pollster they’re interested in unionizing, it’s another to hold a vote and actually become a goddamn union.My first experience with a union came as a bagger at the local Jewel-Osco grocery, putting all that time I’d spent with Tetris on a Game Boy to real-life use. (A bagger is the person at the end of the checkout line who is…well, take a guess.) The store was unionized, which meant I had to pay union dues. There was a massive age gap between management (people in their 30s, 40s, and above), and the teen workforce that did much of the grunt work at the store. Much of what I remember from that period was collectively complaining with teenage colleagues about how our already tiny paychecks were slightly tinier because of the union dues that did…what? I was never given a pitch on why the union was helpful to me. I then grew up during the era of union collapse, one where the only time you probably heard the word “union” was a teacher’s strike on the news, prompting your parents to grumble for understandable (who’s gonna watch my kids while I’m at work?) and less charitable reasons (oh, they’re all overpaid anyway). Cycles of negative reinforcement of my first impression.I also worked at Kotaku when Gawker Media unionized, a watershed moment that lead to a lot of other unions. I cannot tell you that I was a big cheerleader for the unionization effort at the time, though I wasn’t opposed, either. I was mostly indifferent—yeah, sure? There wasn’t a big hell yeah moment when I cast my vote. That feels weird to admit now, the person who thinks everyone and everywhere should be unionizing their workplace, but it’s an honest evaluation of my own evolution on the topic.But I’ve now been under a union, across two companies, for the better part of 10 years, and couldn’t be more thankful for it. I’ve never been paid better, had access to a broader suite of benefits, or felt more secure that others have my back than I have during my time in a union. I’m a massive coward when it comes to asking for raises. Do you know how cool it is to just have my pay increase, year over year, because my union contact guarantees one? Unions are not a catch-all solution to work problems, but it’s a vast improvement, and one of the reasons I’m still here at Waypoint nearly six years later is specifically because of the union, and not every job I could take would have one.This is all to say that it’s sometimes easier to support the concept of unions in principle than in practice, and exposure to the benefits of a union aren’t felt until they become personal. It is about to become very personal for the workers at Raven Software, and while the path to a contract with Activision Blizzard (and then Microsoft?) is probably a long one, you’re already seeing their efforts pay dividends—just look at the BioWare contractors trying to unionize.
Rob: At the Ultra Foods where I first worked, there were a few more long-term employees in their 20s and 30s because that store tended to draw from a lot of working-class neighborhoods where the regular schedule of small increases to hourly rate made it a pretty decent gig. While I was there, and later at a factory unionized under the Steelworkers, I also noticed that a lot of coworkers my age or a little older had pretty extensive life plans around those wage increases, they were something reliable that you could put next to college tuition or starting a family or saving up enough to start a small business. It was a completely different mindset from a lot of the college-bound or summer-breaking workers for whom these jobs were just short-term gigs to bank extra cash: the idea was that the real money would come later. The games industry, like a lot of others, has run on a similar promise. You don’t pay union dues, you pay professional “dues” that are the cost of a ticket into better roles that offer some combination of greater creative input, greater compensation, greater resources, and greater responsibility. But there just aren’t that many first-class berths anymore, and if a job won’t pay in opportunity, it needs to pay in coin. At least that way you can have some kind of a plan for your life that doesn’t involve a stroke of luck promoting you into a much better career track, and maybe even build up the kind of cushion and security that makes it easier to find a better job.
BioWare QA workers in Canada are now attempting to unionize. Screen shot courtesy of Electronic Arts
That’s something that, in the origins of this strike, Activision pretty pointedly denied this QA team with a typically cruel end of year layoff in December, where several people were let go and the rest of the team was plunged into uncertainty about their roles and their workload. I keep thinking about how remarkable it is that the straw that broke the camel’s back at this studio is something that is practically standard practice in this non-unionized industry. And that makes me more hopeful about what comes after this union drive, in some ways. Because if this was all stemming from some uniquely horrible environment, you could imagine how easy it would be for studios to turn around and tell the rest of their employees, “Well at least things are better here!” Instead, this is a group of employees in a part of the industry that’s incredibly conditioned to being jerked-around and exploited who have responded to a routine provocation with extraordinary force.
“The games industry, like a lot of others, has run on a similar promise. You don’t pay union dues, you pay professional “dues” that are the cost of a ticket into better roles that offer some combination of greater creative input, greater compensation, greater resources, and greater responsibility.”
Patrick: I thought Activision Blizzard’s response to the vote was revealing:
Vodeo Games, a small indie studio, is actually the first video game union in the United States. Screen shot courtesy of Vodeo Games
It’s very sneaky! They’ve put out a version of this before, suggesting the union subverts the agency of their colleagues. This kind of union busting tactic doesn’t get as much attention as the more aggressive movies companies will make, like anti-union propaganda meetings, but is 100-percent a mind game that would stress me out, if I were in the shoes of the Raven Software QA team. It specifically preys on the longtime comradery teams in the trenches of any disciple are likely to have with one another, setting up the organization of the union as a selfish act by greedy workers who want a better situation than the rest of their colleagues, rather than an attempt to propose a new form of relationship between worker and boss that Raven—and potentially the rest of the video game industry—could follow if it works out. During VICE editorial’s last set of union negotiations, we made the decision to unite several different VICE union contracts under the same contract. The idea being that, as a group, we would have more power to negotiate with the company. It felt like a move helping everyone.But Raven Software, for the moment, finds itself in a position where, assuming a contract gets done at some point in the future, one part of the company is in a union and the rest is not. It feels similar to the hotspots of unionizing happening at places like Starbucks, and among the many aggressive and hostile responses that company’s had to unionizing, the more subtle and devious is offering better benefits to employees at non-union stores. Sure, it means those workers are getting more because the union, by merely existing, is exerting pressure on the company, but it’s also union busting, because it pits individuals who aren’t unionized (but may be considering it) to take a risk. Rob, most people are pretty risk averse!Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz said he could enact such changes, which certainly came out nowhere, only at non-union stores because “we do not have the same freedom to make these improvements at locations that have a union or where union organizing is underway.”[insert thinking emoji]Living in a world where companies are scared of unions and start offering superior work experiences for their employees is, I guess, better than the one we live in now, but it’s bad process: it’s a short term benefit from a company facing an existential crisis, and comes with zero commitment those benefits will stick around the moment the crisis begins to fade way. The nice part about a contract is the company has to put their money where their mouth is.I remain extremely curious what Activision Blizzard’s next steps are, and it’s unprecedented that such steps come while the company is under scrutiny from multiple fronts, including a potentially deal-killing investigation by the FTC about whether Microsoft can even buy them.
“We respect and believe in the right of all employees to decide whether or not to support or vote for a union. We believe that an important decision that will impact the entire Raven Software studio of roughly 350 people should not be made by 19 Raven employees.”
Rob: I do wonder if Activision’s tactics and messaging in response to this are as effective as we fear. “We can only offer these non-union employees these raises” in the face of union organizing is actually less sneaky than that part in the Simpsons where employees are offered beer if they just voluntarily give up their dental plans. The manipulation is just too naked, the motivations too clear. The fact the mere threat of organizing prompts this kind of sudden generosity from companies like Starbucks or Activision is what we call “a tell.”I don’t think you need to be studying your communist theory to see that if the coffers suddenly open the minute a credible union threat is on the horizon, it’s because management knows that those raises and improvements to working conditions are a pittance compared to what they stand to pay to workers if strong unions form. In some ways it’s more infuriating, right? I think a lot of times you can work at a company and people generally believe that budgets are tight because times are hard or the business is in a complicated place or that there’s some other good reason you’re doing the job of two people for middling pay. The people telling you that often are in the same boat and doing the same thing! Then an incipient union threat appears and suddenly there’s a ton of extra cash and benefits to wave around and you realize that all the bad pay and lack or resources was a choice not a necessity.
The next step for Raven Software's union is negotiating a contract, a long process. Screen shot courtesy of Activision Blizzard
Likewise, I am not sure the problems that QA teams have traditionally faced are as isolated as they used to be. The impression I always got is that historically QA was seen first as an entry-level role where people were desperate to prove themselves and second that people who served in other production departments did not see QA people as peers or colleagues in the same way they regarded one another. In that context, it probably makes a lot of sense that you’d try the line of attack where you point out that a single QA department shouldn’t do things that affect the whole studio… but I suspect a lot of modern game development jobs look more like QA in terms of workload and compensation than they used to, the people working those jobs are probably even more acutely aware of the threat of outsourcing to overseas studios, and QA is held in higher esteem just because their job is so obviously important. Also, when your company is mired in scandal due to an unaccountable and toxic managerial class exploiting their positions and privileges, calling attention to the question of who should be allowed to make decisions for studio employees is at best a very bold choice. Because the other way you could respond to the Activision Blizzard statement on the union is to agree that, yes, a wall-to-wall union is what Raven employees should be working towards.I don’t mean to trivialize the real obstacles workers face to unionizing or say that management doesn’t have an incredible arsenal of cards to play and levers to pull. But I think they’ve squandered their best one, which is making employees feel like they financially and professionally share in the success of the company and its products. Now they’re left in a position where their responses to workers don’t look like generosity or respect, but bribery and fear.Patrick: I think that’s spot on. The industry, by the very nature of its exploitative design, has been pushing itself towards this moment for decades now. It’s impossible to know what tap of a tiny hammer will eventually cause a dam to break, but there’s definitely a leaky hole.Now, we wait.
“Much of what I remember from that period was collectively complaining with teenage colleagues about how our already tiny paychecks were slightly tinier because of the union dues that did…what? I was never given a pitch on why the union was helpful to me.”