Last week, quality assurance testers at Activision Blizzard division Raven Software formed the first union at a major U.S. gaming company, comprising their 34-member unit. But last night, the gaming giant — which is slated to be acquired by Microsoft for $67.8 billion — announced that it will not voluntarily recognize this union.
Now, the newly formed Game Workers Alliance must file a petition with the National Labor Relations Board to hold a union election. The union, working with the Communication Workers of America (CWA), responded to the news with the following statement:
We, the supermajority of workers at Raven QA, are proud to be confidently filing our petition with the NLRB for our union election. We are deeply disappointed that Raven Software and Activision Blizzard refused to uplift workers rights by choosing to not voluntarily recognize our union in spite of our supermajority support.
This was an opportunity for Activision Blizzard to show a real commitment setting new and improved standards for workers. Instead, Activision Blizzard has chosen to make a rushed restructuring announcement to try and hinder our right to organize. Once again, when management is given a choice, they always seem to take the low road.
However, we are proud to file with the NLRB as we enjoy supermajority support for our union and know that together, we will gain the formal legal recognition we have earned.
Since the union represents a supermajority of Raven Software quality assurance testers, unit member Onah Rongstad told TechCrunch last week that the union was confident that they would win their election. But now, even though the employees formed this union to represent the 34 quality assurance testers, Activision Blizzard thinks “all employees at Raven should have a say in the decision.” That’s about 350 people.
“Across the company, we believe that a direct relationship between managers and team members allows us to quickly respond and deliver the strongest results and opportunities for employees,” the company said in an emailed statement to TechCrunch. “As a result of these direct relationships, we’ve made a number of changes over the past couple years including raising minimum compensation for Raven QA employees by 41%, extending paid time off, expanding access to medical benefits for employees and their significant others, and transitioning more than 60% of temporary Raven QA staff into full-time employees. We look forward to continuing a direct dialogue with our team and working together to make our workplace better.”
Before announcing their union, Raven Software QA testers — who mostly work on “Call of Duty” — had been on strike for five weeks, protesting the early termination of twelve contractors, or about a third of the department.
“This was coming off of a five-week stretch of overtime, consistent work. And we realized in that moment that our day-to-day work and our crucial role in the games industry as QA was not being taken into consideration,” Rongstad told TechCrunch last week.
But this is only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the working conditions across Activision Blizzard, which employs around 10,000 people. CEO Bobby Kotick reportedly knew for years about sexual misconduct and rape allegations at his company, but he did not act. Kotick has been rumored to step down amid ongoing SEC investigations and sexual harassment scandals in his company, but that may not happen until after the Microsoft acquisition closes in 2023, if at all.
But systemic issues don’t begin and end with one CEO. Following a two-year investigation, the state of California’s Department of Fair Employment and Housing filed a lawsuit against Activision Blizzard in July, alleging that the company fostered a “‘frat boy’ workplace culture,” calling it “a breeding ground for harassment and discrimination against women.”
Unions can help workers guarantee their protections in many situations, from mitigating workplace harassment to ensuring severance pay in the event of sudden layoffs. But the CWA, which represents the new Game Workers Alliance, thinks that Activision Blizzard is employing tactics to “thwart Raven QA workers who are exercising their right to organize.” Three days after Raven Software QA’s union announcement, Activision Blizzard announced its intent to restructure Raven Software QA in order to bring the group “into alignment with the best practices of other prominent Activision studios,” the CWA relayed in an emailed statement.
“When Management uses meaningless buzzwords like ‘alignment, ‘synergy,’ and ‘reorganization,’ they are sending a message to workers: ‘we make all the decisions, we have all the power.’ Workers organize to have a voice at work to rectify these power imbalances,” the CWA said in its statement. “This is why big tech mergers that could increase and further concentrate corporate power, like Microsoft’s proposed Activision Blizzard acquisition, deserve real oversight. This scrutiny is even more important when a company like Activision Blizzard impedes its workers from exercising rights that are protected under U.S. law.”
But Activision Publishing told TechCrunch that this move has been under consideration for months.
“Raven Software shared an organizational update that continues the work the studio began in November which will transition Quality Assurance teams to work directly alongside Animation, Art, Design, Audio, Production and Engineering teams within Raven. This change will enhance the collaborative work our teams do to support our games and players and make the opportunities for our talented QA staff even stronger,” the company told TechCrunch. “This is the next step in a process that has been carefully considered and in the works for some time, and this structure brings Raven into alignment with the best practices of other prominent Activision studios. It is also a milestone in our broader plan to integrate QA more into the development process as our teams strive to deliver best in class coordination in real-time, live service operations.”
Amid months of internal activism at Activision Blizzard, Rongstad said that the news of the pending Microsoft acquisition doesn’t change workers’ desire to build a safer workplace. But Microsoft historically has not been welcoming of worker unions, so it’s up in the air how this historic move to unionize will shake out. If the election goes through, the Game Workers Alliance would be just the second recognized North American gaming union, following the December unionization of the 13-member indie gaming studio Vodeo Games.