Video game workers in Edmonton became the first video game union in Canada — and third in North America — after voting unanimously to form a union this month.
This article by Johanna Weststar, Western University, originally appeared in Conversation and is reprinted here with permission.
In a historic move, video game workers in Edmonton voted unanimously to unionize for the first time in Canada. Video game unions are notoriously rare in North America. There are only two others on the continent, both located in the United States
This union is an important step for an industry that has been accused of exploitative working conditions for decades. Keywords Studio staff were motivated by concerns about post-COVID-19 pandemic return-to-work policies, a weak time-off policy and low pay.
Other industry issues include job insecurity, long and unpredictable working hours, unpaid overtime, and the prevalence of gender discrimination and sexual harassment.
Keywords Studios workers applied for union certification with the United Food and Commercial Workers Local 401 on April 20. The studio posted a statement on its website accepting the vote and explaining that it has “an ongoing dialogue with everyone in the community Edmonton Team”.
Keywords Studios’ Edmonton team is signed to BioWare, a games company known for dragon time and mass effect Series. They perform quality assurance and playtesting, an important but often underestimated role in the industry.
The first video game union
Some game workers were already members of broad industry unions in Sweden in 2005. But grassroots organization Game Workers Unite changed the scene in 2018.
Game Workers Unite has positioned itself as an organizing organization interested in unionizing the global games industry in any way possible. It spread quickly through largely autonomous regional chapters.
Game Workers Unite took on direct roles in training, capacity building and awareness raising. It also matched game worker activists with existing unions with greater organizational resources.
Now, four years later, we are seeing concerted engagement from established unions and a growing list of success stories across a range of geographic and regulatory contexts, including Canada, the US, the UK, Ireland, France, Sweden, Finland, Croatia, and Australia South Korea.
Why did union formation take so long?
In his book on collective action, industrial relations scholar John Kelly says that fluctuations in worker mobilization reflect the economic rhythms of capitalism, which periodically produce economic situations provoking collective action.
We can trace the history of the game workers’ resistance to see some of these fluctuations. Examples include the Easter egg that programmer Warren Robinett planted in Atari’s adventurethe brief creation of a virtual union called UbiFree in France in 1998; and EA’s infamous spousal affair in 2004.
But these actions came and went without becoming a consistent mobilization effort. According to Kelly, this is because certain conditions must be met for a mobilization to take place.
First, workers must identify a shared injustice and attribute it to their employer. Second, the movement must have the organizational structure to maintain long-term communication and collective decision-making. Third, there must be adequate leadership to turn dissatisfaction into action and maintain momentum.
Finally, since organizing is a bit of a gamble, workers must be able to see an opportunity for success. They analyze the balance of power in their employment, the cost of continued repression by the ruling parties, and the permissiveness of the legal regime to decide whether the gamble is worth it.
Game workers have met some criteria, such as a collective identity. Other necessary conditions, such as a clear class consciousness, leadership qualities and organizational skills, have only recently emerged.
The industry is waking up
Game makers now see themselves as workforce in an exploitative working environment where powerful multinational corporations often call the shots.
The brilliance comes from the rhetoric of “passion,” which reinforces individualism, values heroic effort for the sake of the game, and encourages alignment of workers with the interests of employers.
The discourse about poor working conditions is increasing. Developers identify problems as collective problems that can be won through organization. This evolution of collective consciousness was fueled in part by:
Investigative games journalism, sympathetic reporting, the ease of sharing information, and the impact of negative press on a games studio’s reputation and bottom line
Successful organizing efforts include when GameStop employees in Nebraska walked out to protest poor working conditions and when workers raised $380,000 in a fund set up by striking Activision Blizzard employees
Events like GamerGate and the MeToo movement that have highlighted the prevalence of toxicity and harassment in the gaming industry
The aging workforce and resistance to an unsustainable work-life balance
Success in related sectors such as organizing digital journalists and founding the Alphabet Workers Union at Google
These have helped stimulate interest in collective action and increased the cost of doing nothing. However, it is largely thanks to the emergence of managerial and organizational skills that the patchwork of workers’ resistance has become a sustained union effort.
view in the future
The future for unionized gaming workers is bright. The momentum is high and so far the movement has met with relatively little resistance from employers.
First, Activision Blizzard hired an allegedly anti-union company and reportedly sent anti-union messages. It changed its tune. It now pledges to “negotiate in good faith” with the new quality assurance union at Raven Software.
At the end of 2021, the indie study Vodeo Games voluntarily recognized a union without the need for a vote. It became the first certified wild labor union in North America.
But some challenges remain. In regulatory contexts where unions must be formed by a majority vote of workers, as in Canada and the US, the road to that majority can be a long one. Organizing rides in large studios will take time.
In minority unions and countries with branch unions, representation can be quicker, but power on the job site may be lacking. Workers, employers and policy makers may also need to reconcile a system of local unions against the industry’s regional and international mobility.
Still, this slow move toward unionization holds promise for an industry plagued by worker exploitation. Union organizers are beginning to see that their hard work is paying off and the success of these three unions has set a precedent for other unions – if union building has been successful here, it can be successful elsewhere.
Johanna Weststar, Associate Professor of Labor and Industrial Relations, DAN Department of Management & Organizational Studies, Western University
This article was republished by The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.