On January 21, following a weeks-long strike, 34 quality assurance employees at Raven Software announced plans to form the Game Workers Alliance union. This was the first example of a union in the AAA game industry, but the studio’s parent company Activision Blizzard failed to formally recognize the union by its deadline. Since then Activision Blizzard and the unionizing employees have continued to clash with Activision management, even during a hearing organized by the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB).
The NLRB hearing is, essentially, a way to decide which employees can be counted in the quality assurance unit at Raven Software, as well as which employees can vote for or against the union. Activision Blizzard wants to include all employees across Raven Software in the vote, while the unionizing employees claim that only the organizing unit needs to be counted to vote. There’s a huge difference there, as recognizing the whole studio in the process would mean unionizing employees couldn’t form a “micro-union,” and would need to get a majority vote of all Raven employees. According to LinkedIn, Raven employs 361 people.
Over the last few weeks, Activision Blizzard has been accused of union-busting multiple times, particularly because of the recent plans it announced to restructure the QA unit, dispanding the team as a single unit and embedding them into other different units within the studio. Activision claims this decision was made before the formation of the union, but an anonymous source told The Washington Post otherwise. “The first few days we were supposed to start the embedded testing model no one, not even management, knew who we would be directly reporting to,” they said.
Activision’s reputation took another hit when employees and organizers started sharing almost comical union-busting slides from the website of ReedSmith, a law firm hired to help Activision with its various legal battles. On the other side, the GWA is backed by the Communications Workers of America, a union organization that helps represent employees in news media, communications, higher education, tech, and more. In a statement sent to the press at the start of the hearing, the CWA wrote acknowledged Activision Blizzard’s growing efforts to disrupt unionization efforts.
“The company’s actions in response to Raven QA workers’ decision to form a union demonstrate clearly that nothing has changed at ABK,” the statement reads. “The company has launched an anti-union campaign, spending thousands of dollars on notorious union-busting consultants.”
While a decision from the NLRB hearing has yet to be announced, the hearing itself did officially end on Tuesday, February 22. On the tail-end of the hearing, Senator Tammy Baldwin of Wisconsin issued a letter to Activision CEO Bobby Kotick asking the company to “negotiate in good faith with the workers and suspend any efforts to undermine ... employees’ legal right to form a union and collectively bargain.”
Despite the clashing viewpoints of employees and management, organizers at the GWA don’t feel like Activision Blizzard has done a good enough job of making its case. “I would like to stress that Activision is trying to argue QA is not an eligible unit due to that rushed embed effort but they (in my opinion) are failing to prove QA isn’t its own unit,” says Jessica Gonzalez, a founder and organizer of the GWA.
“Democracy will win.”
According to The Washington Post, much of the testimony during the NLRB hearing discussed the various daily duties of employees at Raven Software, in order to decide whether QA was distinct enough to be its own department. The NLRB decision will have huge ramifications for the unionization effort, especially considering Microsoft’s acquisition of Activision Blizzard looming on the horizon.
If the hearing decides to recognize a unit of QA employees, Activision Blizzard and Microsoft will both have to abide by the hearing. For now, employees and organizers in GWA continue to push the effort and wait for the decision.
“I’m optimistic the NLRB will do the right thing,” Gonzalez says. “Democracy will win.”