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One of America's Largest Unions Gets Serious About Organizing Game Developers

The Communications Workers of America (CWA) union has embarked on an ambitious national campaign to transform the tech and game industries for workers.

by Lauren Kaori Gurley
Jan 7 2020, 6:51pm

IMAGE: NICOLE CLARK

One hundred hour work-weeks without overtime or bonus pay. Burnout. Routine mass layoffs, including several thousand in 2019. Rampant sexism and racism. For decades, video games developers have endured toilsome working conditions with little recourse—lacking union representation at any of the major games studios.

But the launch of a national effort on Tuesday, known as the Campaign to Organize Digital Employees (CODE for short), to unionize games and tech workers, could begin to change some of that.

The campaign is spearheaded by the Communications Workers of America (CWA), one of the country’s largest and most powerful unions, which represents 700,000 media, tech, and telecoms workers and has a legacy of organizing tech workers dating back to the 1990s. (The union led a campaign to improve working conditions for permatemps at Microsoft in 1998 and a failed attempt to unionize customer service workers at Amazon in 2000.)

“The CWA is a perfect fit for the game and tech industry. It has a long history of building power with media and tech and telecoms workers, and a really rich and deep history of organizing massive, national scale campaigns,” Emma Kinema, a lead organizer of the CODE campaign based in Los Angeles told Motherboard. “To me, it’s an absolute no brainer to organize with CWA.”

The CODE campaign came about as a result of talks between CWA and Game Workers Unite, a grass-roots worker organization founded in 2018 to push for comprehensive unionization of the video game industry, which employs roughly 220,000 workers in the United States.

“As our struggle matures, and the movement continues to grow, it’s important to have a public face for traditional labor to engage with. I think it’s important to become public at this point.”

Kinema, who also co-founded Game Workers Unite, says that the CWA has many active union campaigns with tech companies and games studios, some years in the works, that remain private. (Late last year, CWA filed unfair labor practice complaints on behalf of five fired Google employees involved in organizing—a sign that employees at the search engine giant may be building a union campaign with CWA.)

Yet, the decision to launch this national campaign is in part driven by a desire tech and game workers have to make their efforts and collective power, at least to some degree, known by the public, as tech and game companies rapidly expand their market power, says Kinema. Many public figures, including Democratic primary candidate Bernie Sanders, have used their platforms in recent months to speak out on behalf of disgruntled tech workers.

“The bread and butter of union organizing is always very private. Our campaigns are not in a place to be public, but that’s the vast majority of what we’re doing right now,” said Kinema. “As our struggle matures, and the movement continues to grow, it’s important to have a public face for traditional labor to engage with. I think it’s important to become public at this point.”

Meanwhile, increasingly militant tech workers at Google and Amazon, and gig workers at apps like Uber and Instacart have embarked on unprecedented organizing drives, if not outright union drives. In September, Google contractors in Pittsburgh voted to unionize with U.S. Steelworkers union, in a historic victory for the tech industry. On January 2, Kickstarter workers filed for a union election. A victory for the union would make Kickstarter the first major tech company to unionize in the United States.

Kinema says for games and tech workers, concerns about working conditions are slightly different.

“Broadly speaking, bread and butter wage issues are more prevalent and relevant in the games industry. You see more wage concerns, concerns about ‘crunch’ (extended overwork), and racial and gender discrimination,” Kinema said. “Meanwhile in tech, there’s more worker organizing around political issues, like climate change, and values driven efforts. But it’s important to remember these industries aren’t monoliths. Our organizing is about responding to specific worker needs.”

A recent annual poll by International Game Developers Association, an industry group, found mounting interest in unions. In 2009, a mere third of game workers said they would support a union at their company. In 2019, that number leapt to 47 percent, with only 16 percent declaring an outright “no.”

Unlike other union drives in the tech industry, which has centered around specific companies, the CODE campaign is national in scope with organizers on the East and West coasts.

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