Today, Raven Software's quality assurance (QA) department -- which mostly works on "Call of Duty" as part of Activision Blizzard -- became the first union to form at a major U.S. gaming company. With help from the Communications Workers of America (CWA), Raven Software testers launched the Game Workers Alliance, which plans to focus on "improving the conditions of workers in the video game industry by making it a more sustainable, equitable place where transparency is paramount," even beyond its own company. The 34-worker unit is asking management to recognize their union during a time already marked by change: on Tuesday, Microsoft acquired Activision Blizzard for $68.7 billion in one of the priciest tech acquisitions of all time.
But on the heels of that historic acquisition, Activision Blizzard has been embroiled in controversy amid ongoing SEC investigations and sexual harassment scandals. Internally, employees started laying a grassroots foundation for worker solidarity through groups like the ABK Workers Alliance. When Raven Software laid off 12 contractors in early December, the team at the Wisconsin-based studio staged a walkout, which has continued for five weeks and counting.
Raven Software QA tester Onah Rongstad told TechCrunch that this incident sparked discussions about unionizing.
"On December 3, about a third of my department was informed that their contracts were going to be terminated early. And this was coming off of a five-week stretch of overtime, consistent work," she said. "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. And at that time, we decided as Raven QA to start a strike to demonstrate that we are not just disposable parts of the industry, and during that time, it became very apparent that we had majority support within our department for a union."
The ABK Workers Alliance used its sizable social media following to crowdfund over $370,000 to assist with wages during the strike. The CWA said that this strike was the third work stoppage at Activision Blizzard after the company was sued in July 2021 over sexual harassment and misconduct claims. Still, about 20 members of the department remain on strike, Rongstad told TechCrunch.
"We are not sure how long [the strike] will continue, because we have not had direct communication with leadership about our demand that the 12 individuals who were let go be reinstated, which is unfortunate," said Rongstad, who has been with Raven Software since September 2020. "We are hoping to be able to go through with our unionization and get voluntary recognition so that we can prevent something like this from happening in the future."
Rongstad added that the news of Microsoft's planned acquisition does not change the union's plans to seek recognition.
"At the end of the day, we want to be able to work with leadership to create the most positive and beneficial work environment for all of the workers at ABK, and we are happy to work with leadership, whether that is the current leadership or Microsoft leadership in the future," they told TechCrunch.
This level of organizing among workers has little precedent in gaming, despite the industry being notorious for over-working employees or deploying mass layoffs due to closing studios. But only a month ago did the first voluntarily recognized gaming union form in North America at the small indie studio Vodeo Games, which produces "Beast Breaker." Vodeo's union also works with the CWA.
In an emailed statement to TechCrunch, Activision Blizzard responded to the Game Workers Alliance's announcement:
Activision Blizzard is carefully reviewing the request for voluntary recognition from the CWA, which seeks to organize around three dozen of the company’s nearly 10,000 employees. 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.
Across Activision Blizzard, we remain focused on listening closely to our employees and providing the improved pay, benefits and professional opportunities needed to attract and retain the world’s best talent. Over the past couple of years, this has included raising minimum compensation for Raven QA employees by 41%, extending paid time off, expanding access to medical benefits for employees and significant others, and transitioning more than 60% of temporary Raven QA staff into full-time employees.
It's yet to be seen whether or not Activision Blizzard will voluntarily recognize the Game Workers Alliance. If Activision Blizzard chooses to recognize the union, then they don't need to have a union election and can begin collective bargaining. If the company opts not to recognize them, then the union can conduct an election through the National Labor Relations Board.
"We do have supermajority, and that's why we were able to ask for voluntary recognition. We're confident that if it went to a vote, we would win," said Rongstad. "We are hoping that they will voluntarily recognize the union and just show their support for workers rights."
The Game Workers Alliance is giving Activision Blizzard until January 25 to respond to their request for voluntary recognition. Read their letter below:
Update, 1/21/22, 3:00 PM ET with comment from Activision Blizzard and a Raven Software QA tester.
Update, 1/21/22, 3:25 PM ET with the Game Workers Alliance's letter to Activision Blizzard.