Video Game and Tech Workers ‘Drop the U-Word’
At noon on July 17, my co-workers and I at the video game studio Tender Claws stepped away from our desks.
Two of our work-from-home colleagues walked into the office unannounced; our out-of-state colleagues joined virtually on a laptop. We passed out a letter and read it aloud together: “Dear management: we are proud to announce we are forming the Tender Claws Human Union.”
Two weeks later we obtained voluntary recognition, making Tender Claws the fourth video game studio with a certified union in North America. Our company is small, with a unit of just 11 workers, but our victory joins a nationwide wave of organizing in games and tech.
Before 2020 there were virtually no unionized workers in these two industries. Today there are more than 3,000 of us in the Communications Workers (CWA) alone.
Case in point: on the very day we delivered our petition, quality assurance workers at Blizzard Albany launched their own union drive. This small unit would create a second union toehold in gaming giant Activision Blizzard, known for titles like Call of Duty and World of Warcraft.
TROUBLE IN ‘PARADISE’
Game workers make our living building video games. We create 2D and 3D art, compose audio, run quality assurance tests, code game functionality, write character dialogue, design game mechanics, perform customer service, and manage communities of game players. Through our labor, our industry has become a financial giant, forecasted to generate $200 billion this year.
Workers in high-tech jobs are often stereotyped as a ping-pong-playing elite, but the reality is more complex. Some in our industry do make six figures, but many are paid well below the cost of living in the country’s most expensive cities. And most quality assurance and customer service workers barely clear the minimum wage.
From Google to Activision Blizzard, our workplaces are divided between full-time employees and an underclass of temps, vendors, and contractors. Work-life balance is notoriously poor for both groups due to “crunch,” long stretches of overtime in the months or years before the launch of new software. And harassment and discrimination run rampant in workplaces traditionally dominated by straight white men.
We unionized Tender Claws as a wall-to-wall unit to reduce crunch, bargain for sustainable career development, and diversify our hiring process. Tender Claws was founded with the intention of being a progressive workplace, and management has made many efforts to act fairly, but we aren’t immune from the dynamics of the industry. The vision of a better workplace can only be fulfilled when workers ourselves have a direct say, through our union, in the decisions that affect us.
The problems in games and tech aren’t new. Workers have been organizing informally for decades, using salary spreadsheets, class action lawsuits, whisper networks, press exposés, and more recently, walkouts. Some of these standalone actions have yielded moderate wins, and over time they’ve developed consciousness in the power of collective action across our industries.
When you work in a zero percent unionized industry, it can be tempting to remain in this realm of informal organizing. A one-off action has a clean start and end, and feels less risky than organizing a union. It’s easier to get co-workers to commit to do something only once, and you can get away without forming a proper leadership structure.
But this cuts both ways. Standalone actions are easier because they don’t fundamentally challenge the balance of power between workers and management. It’s hard to hold on to the wins. The moment things cool down and managers no longer feel watched, they can quietly retaliate against troublemakers and restore the status quo.
DROPPING THE U-WORD
Fellow organizers and I used to refer to suggesting unionization as “dropping the U-word.” We told ourselves that if an informal action went really well we might escalate to unionizing. But that perfect time never seemed to come.
Last fall, after three years of my organizing with volunteer groups, a friend gave me some tough love: “If you’re calling it ‘the U-word’ with me, how could you be ready to say it to a co-worker?” This was the kick in the butt I needed. Over the following week I reached out to co-workers who had participated in collective actions and I ripped off the Band-Aid: “How would you like to form a union?”
Within a week we had a core group of organizers. A few months later we formed an organizing committee. We made mistakes, learned a lot, and had plenty of ups and downs. But by June we had 100 percent support in our bargaining unit and by July we had won union recognition.
Sometimes, being bold and upfront makes all the difference. Nobody else is going to unionize our industries for us.
A MOVEMENT IS BORN
The grassroots organization Game Workers Unite emerged at an industry trade show in March 2018, in protest of a roundtable called “Union Now? Pros, Cons, and Consequences of Unionization for Game Devs.” The moderator, a former CEO and the then-head of a toothless “game developer advocacy” nonprofit, was clearly not neutral. And as more than 100 angry game workers flooded into the event, it became clear that she was the only one in the room concerned with the “cons” of unionizing.
After the conference, organizers founded Game Workers Unite chapters across the world and funneled our energy into organizing. By running trainings, forming connections with established unions, and building networks of agitated game workers, we sowed the seeds of future unionization.
In 2020 the CWA connected with grassroots networks like Game Workers Unite and brought the support of a major union to the North American game and tech industries. They pooled resources and staff organizers under their Campaign to Organize Digital Employees (CODE-CWA).
This effort bore its first fruit in December 2021 when workers at indie game studio Vodeo formed North America’s first game workers union. They were followed in 2022 by quality assurance workers at the Activision Blizzard subsidiary Raven software.
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 much the same way as Game Workers Unite would.
Unions at Kickstarter (OPIEU) and Glitch (CODE-CWA) won recognition in 2020. And in 2021, workers at Google and other Alphabet subsidiaries formed a “militant minority” union affiliated with CODE-CWA. Recently they surpassed the mark of 1,000 members.
Game and tech workers are suffering, and that’s reason enough to unionize. But there are also strategic benefits for the rest of the labor movement to organizing high-tech workplaces.
Technology has overhauled the working world—consider high-tech surveillance in warehouses, digitized offices and schools, and the apps used to gig-ify many jobs.
Google Search, Amazon Web Services, and Twitter are used so pervasively that despite private ownership, they have begun to resemble civic infrastructure. The bosses who control the production of these technologies wield more power than most world nations.
For workers, the result of all this tech has been to make us less powerful, more isolated, and more closely monitored. But that’s not inevitable. Technology could be liberating, if the decisions on how it’s used weren’t left to a small handful of millionaires and billionaires.
By unionizing tech, we can leverage our collective power to improve the world. Imagine if we refused to use our skills to exploit gig workers, target kids with in-game purchases, or wage wars.
The first step is for game and tech workers to reject the lie that we are “not like other workers” and join our siblings in the labor movement.
STRIPPERS AND GAMERS
A surprising friendship is flowering between Southern California game workers and strip club dancers on strike at Star Garden—another group that’s “not like other workers.”
Organizers with Game Workers of SoCal have helped produce stripper strike signs and buttons, and we frequently walk their picket line. Organizers from the stripper strike helped the Tender Claws union run a T-shirt-making party, and supported game workers at Activision Blizzard when they walked off the job in protest of harassment and race and gender discrimination.
The contexts are different, but the striking strippers and the workers at Activision Blizzard are fighting for the same vision: safer, fairer workplaces. We have more in common than we think.
Robin LoBuglio (she/her) is a gameplay programmer who serves on the Organizing Committee for the Tender Claws Human Union and the steering committee for Game Workers of SoCal.