At noon on July 17, my colleagues and I left our desks at the video game studio Tender Claws.
Two of our colleagues entered the office unannounced; Our out-of-state colleagues joined us on laptops. We handed over a letter and read it aloud together: “Dear Management, We are proud to announce the formation of the Tender Clause Human Union.”
Two weeks later, Tender Claws became the fourth video game studio to be voluntarily accredited with the North American Certified Association. Our company is small, with only 11 departments, but our victory joins the wave of organizing around gaming and technology nationwide.
Before 2020, there were no unionized workers in these two industries. They exist today. More than 3,000 of us By Communications Workers (CWA) only.
Case in point: On the day we filed our complaint, quality assurance workers at Blizzard Albany began their own union walkout. This small division forms a second alliance within gaming giant Activision Blizzard, known for titles such as Call of Duty and World War.
Trouble in “Paradise”.
The game staff plays our residential building video games. We create 2D and 3D art, write audio, run quality assurance tests, code game functionality, write character dialogue, design game mechanics, handle customer service, and manage gamer communities. With our energy, our industry has become a financial giant that is projected to generate $200 billion this year.
Workers in high-tech jobs are often mistaken as ping-pong-playing elites, but the reality is more complicated. A few in our industry make six figures, but many are paid less than the cost of living in the country’s most expensive cities. And most quality assurance and customer service workers clear the minimum wage.
From Google to Activision Blizzard, our entire workplace is split between temporary and temp workers, vendors and contractors. Work-life balance is poorer for both groups due to “cramming,” long overtime hours in the months or years before new software is launched. And harassment and discrimination are rampant in traditionally white-dominated workplaces.
We have made Bid Clauses a wall-to-wall unit to reduce congestion, negotiate for sustainable career development and streamline our recruitment process. BidClaus was founded with the intention of being a progressive workplace, and management has made great efforts to operate fairly, but we are not immune to the dynamics of the industry. The vision of a better workplace can only be achieved when our employees have a direct say through our union in the decisions that affect us.
Problems in games and technology are nothing new. Workers have been organizing informally for decades, using wage tables, class action lawsuits, whistleblower networks, press coverage and, more recently, walkouts. Some of these independent actions achieved modest victories, and eventually developed a consciousness of collective action within our industries.
When you work in a zero percent unionized industry, it can be challenging to stay in this informally organized field. A one-time move has a clean start and end, and feels less threatening than organizing a union. It’s easy to have co-workers only do one thing at a time, and they can get away with not creating a proper leadership structure.
But this cuts both ways. Standalone actions are easier because they do not fundamentally challenge the balance of power between labor and management. Winning is hard to hold on to. When things cool down and managers feel visible, they can quietly retaliate and reinstate troublemakers.
Dropping the U-word
My fellow editors and I used to refer to suggesting a union as “dropping the U-word.” We told ourselves that if informal action worked well, we could move to a union. But that perfect time never seemed to come.
Last fall, after three years of organizing with volunteer groups, a friend gave me some tough love: “If you’re going to say the ‘U-word’ with me, how would you be prepared to say it to your co-worker?” ? This was the kick in the butt that I needed. The next week, I met with colleagues involved in joint activities and explained the Band-Aid: “How do you want to form a union?”
Within a week we had a core group of organizers. A few months later, we formed an organizing committee. We’ve made mistakes, learned a lot, and had a lot of ups and downs. But in June we got 100 percent support from our bargaining unit and in July we got union recognition.
Sometimes being brave and up front makes all the difference. No one is integrating our industries for us.
A movement was born
The grassroots organization Game Workers Unite Appeared at the March 2018 industry trade show, “Union Now? The Pros, Cons, and Consequences of Forming a Game Developers Alliance. Moderator, the former CEO and then head of a toothless “game developer advocacy” charity, was clearly not neutral. And as more than 100 angry gaming workers filed into the event, it became clear that she was the only one in the room concerned about union “disadvantages.”
After the conference, organizers established Game Workers United chapters around the world and put their energies into organizing. We seed future alliances by conducting trainings, building relationships with established unions, and building a network of oppressed game workers.
In the year In 2020, CWA joined grassroots networks like Game Workers Unite and brought major union support to the North American game and technology industries. They gathered resources and organized workers under the Campaign to Organize Digital Workers (CODE-CWA).
This effort bore its first fruits in December 2021, when indie game studio employees Vodeo formed North America’s first game workers union. They were followed by quality assurance staff at Activision Blizzard subsidiary Raven Software in 2022.
Outside of video games, the tech industry has had a similar arc. The grassroots Tech Workers Coalition emerged in 2014, advocating for collective action and unionization in a similar way to Game Workers Unite.
Unions at Kickstarter (OPIEU) and Glitch (CODE-CWA) won recognition in 2020. And in 2021, Google and other employees at Alphabet formed a “militant minority” union affiliated with CODE-CWA. They recently surpassed the 1,000 member mark.
Gaming and tech workers are suffering, and that’s reason enough to unionize. But it also has strategic advantages for the rest of the labor movement in organizing high-tech workplaces.
Technology has revolutionized the world of work – consider high-tech tracking and multitasking apps in warehouses, digitized offices and schools.
Google Search, Amazon Web Services, and Twitter are widely used, but they are beginning to look like civic infrastructure, even though they are privately owned. The bosses who control the production of these technologies have more power than most countries in the world.
For workers, the effect of all this technology has made us more powerful, more isolated, and more closely monitored. But this is not inevitable. Technology can be liberating if the decision on its use is not left to a few millionaires and billionaires.
By integrating technology, we can use our collective power to improve the world. Imagine if we refused to use our abilities to exploit gig workers, target kids with in-game purchases, or wage wars.
The first step is for game and technology workers to reject the lie that “we are not like other workers” and join our brothers and sisters in the labor movement.
Strippers and players
A strange camaraderie is blossoming between the Southern California game workers and the club dancers on strike at Star Garden – another group that “doesn’t look like the rest of the workers.”
Developers along with the SoCal Game staff helped produce strike markers and keys, and we frequently go through their thread. Organizers of the strike helped host a party to auction off Claus Union T-shirts, and supported game workers at Activision Blizzard when they walked off the job to protest harassment and racial and gender discrimination.
The contexts are different, but amazing developers and employees at Activision Blizzard are fighting for the same vision: safer, fairer workplaces. We have more in common than we think.