Quality assurance testers at Raven Software, a subsidiary of video game development giant Activision Blizzard, began casting their votes this week for union certification through the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB). The eligible workers have until May 20 to cast their votes and the official count will be held on May 23 via video conference. Citing issues around pay, hours, job stability, and respect, nearly 30 QA workers went public with their union with the Communications Workers of America under the name of the Game Workers Alliance (CWA) in January. This effort came on the heels of a wave of tech and game worker union organizing by the CWA’s CODE-CWA campaign which ushered in the first certified tabletop game worker union at Paizo, the company behind smash hits Pathfinder and Starfinder, as well as the first certified union of video game workers in North America at independent studio Vodeo Games.
The union announcement follows months of petitions, strikes, and firings at Activision Blizzard. In response to the union announcement, Raven Software and Activision Blizzard quickly launched an aggressive anti-union campaign designed to break the workers’ solidarity and chances of winning. In March, Raven Software management announced plans to reorganize the QA testers from being an isolated department to what is known as “embedded testing” where they would be integrated throughout the studio’s other departments. Soon after, Activision Blizzard challenged the workers’ unit definition, claiming that the unit should include the entire Raven Software studio of over 200 workers – an assertion that if accepted by the NLRB would immediately drop their support level below the majority required to win union certification. After several rounds of hearings, the NLRB ruled in late April that the workers’ unit of QA testers was valid and that voting would commence in May.
In another attempt at demoralizing the Raven QA workers, Activision Blizzard announced plans in April to shift thousands of temporary and part-time game testers into full time positions with pay bumps – with the exception of the unionizing workers at Raven Software. The company cited NLRB restrictions to justify their exclusion of the unionizing workers, but in reality offering increases in pay or benefits to non-union workers in the lead up to a union vote is a very common union busting tactic and was recently used against Starbucks organizing efforts. It is clear that this pay bump is a desperate attempt to bribe workers away from organizing amid an atmosphere of worker activism under the banner of “A Better ABK” and union organizing by the Communications Workers of America. Any concession by the boss, including this one, is the result of worker organizing.
The rising power of workers in the game development industry is a rapidly growing front in the fight to organize new industries. Union organizing in the video game industry isn’t notable simply because of its history of poor working conditions — it also has deep ties with the U.S. State Department, intelligence services, and Department of Defense. Activision Blizzard itself is known for its massively successful Call of Duty franchise which injects imperialist and pro-war propaganda straight into the heart of mass youth media and culture. In 2021 news broke that Activision Blizzard welcomed a former CIA chief operating officer into a top executive position at the company.
The game industry as a whole has a long track record of directly working with the US State Department and working closely with arms manufacturers. In recent years, the US Department of Defense has only further enmeshed itself with the game industry and youth gaming culture through Twitch streaming recruitment targeting children and by highlighting competitive esports gaming in its recruitment materials to high school students.
Video games play a crucial role in modern culture eclipsing the film, sports, and music industries in revenue. Even the White House has acknowledged this wave of video game organizing with President Biden and Vice President Harris hosting a CODE-CWA game union member in a meeting with other labor organizers. Should the Raven QA testers win their upcoming union vote on May 23, the Communications Workers of America’s effort to organize the game industry will mark a new milestone and claim territory in the heart of major corporate game development.
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