Activision Blizzard flip-flops on vaccination policies as employees walk out

It’s been a rocky time for employees at Activision Blizzard as they weather sexual harassment scandals, a landmark acquisition by Microsoft and textbook examples of corporate union-busting. Then, last week, the gaming giant’s chief administrative officer, Brian Bulatao, sent an email to all U.S. employees mandating a June return to the office after over two years of working from home during the pandemic.

“Effective immediately, we are lifting our vaccine mandate for all U.S. employees,” Bulatao wrote in the message, which was leaked by Jessica Gonzalez, a former Activision Blizzard engineer and current labor organizer for the ABK Workers Alliance. “This means that employees no longer need to be fully vaccinated against COVID-19 in order to return to office.”

Employees voiced concern about the plan, which would make returning to work especially unsafe for immunocompromised staff. Activision Blizzard has almost 10,000 employees, though they are spread across a variety of global offices. But eliminating vaccine mandates and other tactics to reduce the spread of COVID-19 struck some workers as short-sighted and brazen. So on April 1, the ABK Workers Alliance announced their intent to stage a virtual walkout.

Bulatao walked back his message soon after, declaring that individual studios could choose whether or not to enforce a vaccine mandate, but members of the ABK Workers Alliance felt the response was unsatisfactory.

“As soon as we went live with our demands and our intention to walk out, leadership responded immediately and announced they would let individual locations enforce their own vaccination policies,” said Kate Anderson, a quality assurance tester at Activision. “This shows us the power of collective action.”

At least 117 employees, including Anderson, proceeded with that planned virtual walkout today and are demanding that the company make work from home an option for all employees and reinstate the vaccine mandate for all studios that haven’t already taken this action themselves. According to a Blizzard engineer, four studios have reinstated vaccine requirements, including Blizzard.

As Activision Blizzard navigates a tumultuous period, quality assurance testers at Raven Software — the department of Activision Blizzard that mostly works on “Call of Duty” — formed the first union at a major U.S. gaming company, the Game Workers Alliance. Predictably, the company did not voluntarily recognize the 34-member unit, meaning that they will have to hold an election through the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB).

“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,” the union, working with the Communication Workers of America (CWA), said in a statement at the time.

Anderson thinks that unionizing would help in situations like developing a return-to-office plan.

“I think it’s incredibly important to consult employees when making big decisions like this, especially when it affects the health and safety of employees,” Anderson told TechCrunch. “With a union, we would be able to have a seat at the table.”

Other large tech companies like Facebook, Microsoft and Amazon have instituted flexible work policies, allowing employees to work from home at least a few days a week.

“Many of us have been working from home effectively since 2020,” Anderson said. “We have seen other companies put in place hybrid models for remote work and in-office work and largely let their employees choose what is best for them. There is no reason ABK can’t do the same.”