Activision Employees to Cast Union Vote

Jessica Gonzalez can sometimes still hear the eerie theme music for one of the Call of Duty video games in her mind. She jokes that the soundtrack will play on a loop in her subconscious when she gets older.

Throughout the mid-2010s, Ms. Gonzalez spent months working grueling, 14-hour overnight shifts at Activision Blizzard’s offices in Los Angeles as a quality assurance tester combining the video game developer’s shooter game for glitches while waiting to stay.

“It’s dystopian,” said Ms. Gonzalez, 29. “It’s really exhausting sometimes, because you feel like you’re pouring from an empty cup.”

Ms. Gonzalez and other QA testers were “crunching,” a term in the game industry’s prolonged stretches of intense work before a game’s release. Employees are often given shifts of up to 12 to 14 hours each day, with only one or two days off each month, all in the name of a deadline to ship title to players.

Discontent over working conditions at video game companies has been growing for years, driven by anger about the crunch period experienced by Ms. Gonzalez, as well as by poor pay, temporary contracts and sexual harassment in the workplace.

Now some game workers are considering unionization, which would have been unimaginable just a few years ago. Their interest has also been fueled by lower unemployment rates, which has led workers to believe they have more leverage over their employers, as well as a lawsuit last year that triggered Activision’s problems with sexual misconduct and gender discrimination out in the open,

About 20 quality assurance workers at Raven Software, a subsidiary of Activision, will vote on whether to unionize on Monday. If successful, the Raven workers would form the Game Workers Alliance, the first union at a major North American video game publisher. Although it is a small group, it would be a symbolic victory for organizers who think gaming industry workers are ready for unions.

“It’s going to spark that ignites the rest of the industry, I believe,” said Ms. Gonzalez, who formed ABetterABK, the activist group of activist workers who has been pushing for the company to improve its culture since its lawsuit last July. Ms. Gonzalez quit Activision last year and now works at the Communications Workers of America, a union that has been helping Raven organize.

Activision, which has about 10,000 employees around the world, has challenged the QA workers to unionize without having all of the 230 employees at Raven taking part. Kelvin Liu, a spokesman for the company, said it thinks “everyone in our studio should have a say in this important decision.”

Workers in the gaming industry often hear from those outside the industry that conditions can’t be so bad because they are making money playing games. But to Blake Lotter, another former Activision QA worker who crunched during the development of Call of Duty: Cold War in 2020, was up-to-date for 14 hours straight while alert to the chugging energy drinks that were mind-numbing.

“You could really like food, any kind of food, but if you only eat that same food for months to a year, you’re going to hate it,” he said. “It’s going to feel like work or a punishment.” (Mr. Liu said the company was creating a “flexible workplace culture where our teams are able to balance their work with their personal needs.”)

In other countries, like Australia and the United Kingdom, it is common for game workers to be unionized. But in North America, unions have not yet been caught in game studios.

But in 2018, a group of game developers formed an organization called Game Workers Unite, which created local chapters to encourage unionization efforts in various cities. This year, dozens of workers at Riot Games walked out to protest the company’s handling of lawsuits accusing it of having a sexist and toxic culture. Female employees later win $ 100 million in settlement over gender discrimination. Large game studios like Ubisoft have faced lawsuits and demanding improvements to activist workplaces.

Workers at a small studio called Vodeo Games formed the first gaming union in North America in December. Outside the Game Awards that month in Los Angeles, a glitzy show of industry executives, developers and celebrities, a handful of picketers drummed up attention for a rapidly growing labor group, The Game Workers of Southern California.

In April, contract workers at BioWare, a Canadian development studio, said they would form a union. At the same time, an employee at Nintendo filed a charge against the company’s National Labor Relations Board, accusing Nintendo of firing them because they “joined or supported a labor organization.”

The news prompted renewed attention to Nintendo’s treatment of its employees, especially QA workers, who are often relegated to temporary contracts and development studios at the bottom of the totem pole, causing many to feel like second-class citizens.

In a statement, Nintendo said the employee had been fired for disclosing confidential information and that the company was “fully committed to providing a welcoming and supportive work environment.”

It all adds up to an environment in which gaming employees are more willing to talk about perceived and more curious about organizing collectively than ever before, especially as they watch labor campaigns at companies like Amazon, Apple and Starbucks.

“I would frame this time as a real experiment, where game workers are exploring their options in what seems to be quite an open-minded way,” said Johanna Weststar, an associate professor at Western University in Ontario who studies labor in the game. industry.

Professor Weststar attributed the interest in activism to gaming campaigns led by unions like CWA, which has found the gaming industry to be a “massive, untapped market.” Monday’s vote is a “low-hanging fruit” for union activity, she said, because it is affecting a small group of temporary workers who are most likely to organize.

“It will be more telling or more formative when a larger studio with a more permanent and more stable work force, when they actually unionize,” Professor Weststar said.

The vote comes months after employees at Raven, the Wisconsin studio that helped develop Activision’s flagship Call of Duty game, went out of work to protest after the company ended about a dozen Raven QA workers’ contracts, which workers said were abrupt and unfair. General Chat Chat Lounge After the workers announced their union to unionize in January, Activision, which is being acquired by Microsoft for $ 70 billion, said it would not be voluntarily recognized by the group.

Soon after, the company said it would disperse QA workers across various departments at the Raven studio. It also said it would convert more than 1,000 temporary QA contractors at Activision to full-time status and give them a pay raise, up to $ 20 an hour, and more benefits. Activision said the unionizing workers would not be affected, as federal labor law prevented them from voting against inducing workers against a union’s increasing pay or benefits ahead of an election. (CWA rejected this assertion.)

Activision also argued to the NLRB that because Raven QA workers were spreading throughout the studio, they were no longer a bargaining unit, and that all Raven studio workers should be eligible to vote. The board rejected those claims and told workers in the mail their ballots, which will be counted on Monday. If a majority are in favor, the workers will unionize, pending objections over the voting process.

Workers at Activision and elsewhere will be watching closely. Already, they say, they are seeing the benefits – like the pay increases – of pressuring their employer to improve.

“Those things just happened because of how hard we’ve been pushing and how much pressure there has been on top management,” said Jiji Saari, an Activision QA worker in Minneapolis. “We know we can’t complacent or lose too much steam.”

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