After weeks of striking, quality assurance workers at Activision Blizzard-owned game studio Raven Software have voted to form a new union, adding a wrinkle to Microsoft’s $69-billion acquisition of the video game giant.
Workers at the Wisconsin-based studio that leads development of the popular game “Call of Duty” are launching the Game Workers Alliance with Communications Workers of America. The quality assurance unit consists of 34 workers, 27 of whom voted to publicly support the union.
“In the video game industry, specifically Raven QA, people are passionate about their jobs and the content they are creating,” Becka Aigner, a Raven QA functional tester, said in a press release. “We want to make sure that the passion from these workers is accurately reflected in our workplace and the content we make.”
More than 60 workers walked off the job at Raven Software and across the 10,000-employee company headquartered in Santa Monica in early December to protest the dismissal of several members of the quality assurance department at the end of their contracts. The strike has been running for five weeks.
Jessica Gonzalez, a former Activision employee and organizer with worker group A Better ABK, called the news a “huge step” for labor organizing in the games industry.
“The first-ever blockbuster studio to unionize, it’s a big deal,” Gonzalez said.
Worker unrest has been stirring at Activision Blizzard for months. California’s Department of Fair Employment and Housing filed a lawsuit against the firm last summer, alleging that senior leaders allowed sexual harassment and pay discrimination to continue unchecked throughout the company for years.
In the wake of the lawsuit, workers at the company formed A Better ABK to press for better conditions and worker representation at Activision Blizzard and its King unit, maker of popular mobile games such as Candy Crush.
A Wall Street Journal investigation in November showed that Activision Chief Executive Bobby Kotick knew about sexual harassment allegations for years. Nearly a fifth of the firm’s staffers signed a petition and a walkout was organized to call for Kotick’s resignation.
Workers across the video game industry have increasingly been pushing back against work conditions that include temporary contracts with minimal job security and brutal weeks-long pushes to meet game deadlines. In December, about a dozen workers at the independent game developer Vodeo Games formed the first video game studio union in North America.
Friday’s news comes on the heels of Tuesday’s announcement that Microsoft would be purchasing Activision Blizzard for $68.7 billion, the largest acquisition in the software company’s history. Some employees expressed unhappiness that the deal could represent a soft exit for Kotick, who stands to walk away with hundreds of millions of dollars.
Microsoft, like most of the tech industry, is not unionized, though temporary employees at the contractor Lionbridge Technologies signed a union contract with the company in 2016. Some Microsoft workers in South Korea and Britain are also part of unions.
Microsoft Games Chief Executive Phil Spencer told the Washington Post on Thursday that he doesn’t “have a lot of personal experience with unions.”
“I’ve been at Microsoft for 33 years,” Spencer said. “So I’m not going to try to come across as an expert on this, but I’ll say we’ll be having conversations about what empowers them to do their best work, which as you can imagine in a creative industry, is the most important thing for us.”
The newly-formed Game Workers Alliance requested voluntary recognition from Activision Blizzard but will move forward with a balloted election through the National Labor Relations Board if they do not receive a response by Jan. 25.
“A collective bargaining agreement will give Raven QA employees a voice at work, improving the games they produce and making the company stronger,” CWA Secretary-Treasurer Sara Steffens said in the press release. “Voluntary recognition is the rational way forward.”
The Game Workers Alliance also accused the company of “surveillance and intimidation tactics,” including hiring union busters to silence workers.
An Activision Blizzard spokesperson said the company is “carefully reviewing” the request for voluntary recognition from CWA.
“While we believe that a direct relationship between the company and its team members delivers the strongest workforce opportunities, we deeply respect the rights of all employees under the law to make their own decisions about whether or not to join a union,” the spokesperson said.
The company said it has raised minimum compensation for Raven QA employees by 41%, extended paid time off, expanded access to medical benefits and transitioned more than 60% of temporary QA staff into full-time employees.