Gaming Gets Its First Union At A Major U.S. Studio

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Last December, former Trump crony and current chief administrative officer at Activision Blizzard, Brian Bulatao, who stands to make millions from a planned sale of the company to Microsoft, begged employees not to unionize in an email to staff. When Raven QA staff moved ahead with organizing anyway, the company tried to force a studio-wide vote on the issue rather than just let the few-dozen staff decide. The National Labor Relations Board eventually shot that down too, and instead Activision managers retreated to a sustained campaign of anti-union messaging, including arguing that unionization would lead to worse games.

In recent months, Activision has also faced several labor complaints over its infringement of workers’ rights and lost there as well. The NLRB announced Monday that its Los Angeles Regional Office “found merit” in a December complaint alleging the company had spied on and threatened employees for discussing working conditions with one another, and that its social media policy was overly restrictive.

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“The Board’s decision reinforces what workers have been experiencing at Activision when they try to raise concerns about serious issues at the company,” Communication Workers of America organizing director Tom Smith told Kotaku in a statement. “In order to rebuild trust at Activision, Bobby Kotick needs to take the high road and start listening to workers instead of doing everything possible—including breaking the law—to silence them.”

Activision isn’t the only big video game company facing increased scrutiny from the NLRB, however. The Raven workers’ successful union drive comes on the heels of indie studio Vodeo Games becoming the first of its kind to unionize in North America last year, and contract staff at BioWare announcing a union drive last month. This movement, which comes alongside explosions in union activity at Starbucks, Amazon, and Apple, has even spurred questions at places like Nintendo of America.

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As Kotaku previously reported, a former contract employee at Nintendo asked about management’s thoughts on these unionization efforts at a department meeting in February. The employee was later fired. Nintendo said in a statement it was because of an NDA violation. Employees Kotaku spoke with didn’t believe that. The employee then proceeded to file a complaint with the NLRB for coercion and retaliation, as first reported by Axios in April.

“[The Raven union is] going to be the spark that ignites the rest of the industry, I believe,” Jessica Gonzalez, a former Activision Blizzard QA developer who helped organize its new labor groups, told The New York Times on Monday. While the group will begin negotiating its first contract with Activision Blizzard, it will eventually be run by Microsoft if a planned $69 billion acquisition isn’t torpedoed during review by the Federal Trade Commission. The tech giant has said it will recognize the union if and when it takes over.

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“Our biggest hope is that our union serves as inspiration for the growing movement of workers organizing at video game studios to create better games and build workplaces that reflect our values and empower all of us,” members of GWA said today. “We look forward to working with management to positively shape our working conditions and the future of Activision Blizzard through a strong union contract.”

Update: 5/23/22, 4:07 p.m. ET: Added comment from Activision Blizzard.

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