The video game industry's long history of nonexistent unionization efforts may finally be coming to an end, right as Microsoft begins to buy one of the world's biggest game companies.
On Friday, 34 workers, who are largely charged with testing "Call of Duty: Warzone" for Activision Blizzard ATVI's Raven Software, voted to form the Game Workers Alliance.
Microsoft MSFT just this week announced plans to acquire Activision for just under $69 billion by June 2023 — the company currently has a market cap of $63.4 billion — but is known for its tussles with organized labor, making this phase of the planned buyout more complex.
Microsoft did respond to a request for comment on the unionization effort.
The union effort also arrives as the company continues to see downside from long-running, headline-grabbing scandals.
Drawn-out discussion around workplace issues, including how the company has handled complaints of sexual misconduct, have impacted Activision ATVI stock, which fell to the $57.28 in Dec. 1, the lowest point since 2020.
It is now at $81.36, down 10% from the last six months.
Why A Union And Why Now?
Union backers say organizing will "improv[e] the conditions of workers" in the face of what they cite as layoffs, poor work conditions and a toxic corporate culture. The larger Communications Workers of America (CWA) helped hold the vote, which passed by a supermajority.
While the Microsoft deal was largely met with excitement when announced, union organizers wondered whether it would make it more difficult to fight against what they see as unfair practices or obtain transparency.
Microsoft has, over the years, had its own brushes with organized labor: it took years of negotiations for a Microsoft supplier to obtain a union contract in 2016 while, last November, the Microsoft Korea Workers Union in Korea voted to strike over wages and workplace safety.
Activision now needs to officially recognize the union. If it does not do so by Jan. 25, the organizers plan, according to a press release, to hold an election through the National Labor Relations Board.
That would enable it to form the union without company recognition.
"We want to make sure that the passion from these workers is accurately reflected in our workplace and the content we make," Raven Software tester Becka Aigner in a statement. "Our union is how our collective voices can be heard by leadership."
Why Are Employees Unhappy?
The union comes at an intersection of different pivotal moments for the company: numerous Raven employees have been on strike after the company laid off 12 "Call of Duty" contractors in December.
A GoFundMe fund to help striking Raven workers with lost wages raised almost $375,000 so far.
In November, news reports alleged that Activision CEO Bobby Kotick failed to act on allegations of sexual misconduct at the company.
That prompted an investigation with the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC); when the company filed a report with the SEC on Wednesday, it stated that "no employees of the Company or any of its Subsidiaries are members of a labor union, trade union, works council or any similar labor organization."
Why This Is Huge
While industries like media and service have seen numerous high-profile mobilization efforts over the years, the video game industry has largely avoided it.
If approved, this would be the first union at a major video game company in the United States. A small and recently-founded company named Vodeo Games formed a union in December.
Catherine Fisk, a labor law expert at the University of California, Berkeley, told TheStreet that video game industry has largely escaped union-forming for a combination of reasons.
While some workers had jobs where they were treated well and simply hadn't thought they needed them, the industry's competitive nature and reliance on contractors could have made others feel "lucky" to have jobs in the industry at all and avoid mobilizing out of fear.
"Some, who may have recognized that they could not secure good pay, decent hours without the constant use of crunch time, respect from co-workers and supervisors, job stability, benefits, or other protections, may have not realized how joining with co-workers to bargain collectively could help them improve wages and working conditions," Fisk said.
The Activision efforts can, Fisk said, absolutely spark a "domino effect" at other video game companies — with employee concerns on the national stage, similar efforts at other major companies could follow suit.
"Unionization has succeeded, historically, when enough workers realize that they will gain strength by acting collectively, when companies believe that workers have the will to do so, when law protects the right to unionize against employer retaliation, and when enough workers at enough companies unionize that companies realize they won’t be at a competitive disadvantage if they recognize the union and sign a contract," Fisk said.