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Activision Union Push Drags Labor Back to Big Tech Battleground

Dec. 16, 2021, 3:30 PM

A push by organizers at Activision Blizzard Inc. to begin unionizing workers was hailed by labor advocates and critics of the company who are eager to bring changes to an industry hammered by allegations of sexual harassment and discrimination.

Organizers have demanded an end to the use of forced arbitration agreements, an audit of the company’s practices, increased pay transparency, and the ouster of embattled CEO Bobby Kotick.

Activists see the company as a prime target to organize workers and break through in an industry that has successfully resisted union efforts. But many legal experts and industry watchers expressed skepticism, noting the long path ahead and said organizers need to adopt new tactics to overcome the challenges that bedeviled labor in the past.

“A bunch of factors need to all occur at the same time for the right environment to exist for unionization, and I just don’t see it happening anytime soon,” said Sam Roberts, assistant director of the Interactive Media and Games Division at the University of Southern California.

“None of what we’re seeing right now—calls for action on social media, occasional walkouts—has the required level of organization,” he added. “And the next steps are not going to be easy.”

Uphill Battle

For labor, the tech industry presents a familiar but largely unfriendly battleground.

“Unions generally have made unionizing in Silicon Valley and the tech industries a priority, but so far that hasn’t developed into noteworthy organizing wins,” said Maxford Nelson, labor policy director at conservative think tank Freedom Foundation.

Last week, Activision organizers announced they had asked workers to sign union authorization cards, the first step toward unionizing. If organizers gather support from at least 30% of employees, that’s sufficient for the National Labor Relations Board to conduct a majority-vote election.

Activist employee group A Better ABK is teaming up with the Communications Workers of America on the effort.

Separately, CWA secured recognition of the first union of video game workers in the country, announced Dec. 15, at Vodeo, a California-based company. Activision, though, remains the big prize for unions.

Roberts downplayed the broader impact of the Vodeo union victory.

“As all of this is more normalized it would help a case like ABK,” he said. “But we need probably five more years and many more small studios in conjunction with a similar situation to ABK.”

Successful organizing requires strong financial resources, said Stanford University legal professor William B. Gould IV, who served as chair of the NLRB during the Clinton administration.

“The question is how much of the union’s resources will be put into the effort,” he said. “Union money is going into other union activities like the negotiation of existing agreements, and protecting workers they already represent.”

Unions generally spend 10% of dues on organizing, according to Gould. Despite the public support from the CWA, “right now, the employees are very much on their own,” he said.

Gaming Juggernaut

Adding to the challenges is the size and complexity of Activision Blizzard itself, which numbers over 9,000 U.S.-based employees.

“Activision is a huge number of studios, and there are a bunch of other sub-cultures there,” Roberts said.

If organizers garner enough support to organize a vote, the challenges, including stronger pushback from Activision, only increase at that point, said Roberts. “Then you’ll see immense internal pressure not to be part of the union.”

Activision is likely to take a page from the corporate playbook by implementing internal changes to blunt momentum for a union, ramping up public relations work, and even leadership changes, Roberts said.

“If that works again for Activision, that’s going to become the standard,” he said, referring to how other gaming companies face unionization efforts.

A Better ABK organizers were unavailable to comment before deadline. CWA declined to comment for this story.

An Activision spokesperson told Bloomberg Law the company supports employee rights under the National Labor Relations Act, and is committed to direct dialogue with employees. “Many of the policies and actions we have taken in recent months have been a direct result of this engagement,” the spokesperson said. “We support all their NLRA rights, including to discuss these issues, as well.”

Activision, in a Dec. 10 email, told employees that change could be achieved without a union. “The leadership of Activision Blizzard supports your right, under the National Labor Relations Act, to make your own decision about whether or not to join a union,” wrote Chief Administrative Officer Brian Bulatao. “We ask only that you take time to consider the consequences of your signature.”

New Tactics

The fight at Activision may give union organizers the opportunity to use different approaches to tip the balance, industry watchers said.

Nelson said the Activision union effort, in its early stages, looked “like a traditional corporate campaign that a union would undergo to organize a company.”

Margaret O’Mara, a University of Washington professor who studies the tech industry, though, pointed to the remote nature of today’s workforce as an opportunity.

“Unions are creatures of the industrial age,” O’Mara said. “But with everyone working remotely, we see these new forms of organization and activism that are happening on Slack, Discord, and other platforms. The erasure of these boundaries, the total mashup of home and work, means people are essentially organizing against the company on company time.”

O’Mara noted A Better ABK’s use of social media to get organizers closer to a vote.

“They’re getting a lot of public attention, they’re getting momentum, and its reflecting some newer developments the tech industry hasn’t experienced before,” she said.

Better Leverage

Despite the challenges, some said the Activision union efforts were a significant step toward organizing tech workers.

“The fact that not only blue-collar workers in tech, but especially white-collar engineers are organizing, is really notable and we’ve not really seen that before,” said O’Mara.

“It isn’t that tech workers haven’t wanted to assert their power, they just didn’t have the leverage,” she said. “But here you have these activists who are relatively privileged. Their skills are in high demand, and they have leverage because of that. And they’re still rallying and speaking out, which is really remarkable.”

Jenny Jarzabski, a developer at Paizo Inc., the tabletop game firm behind Pathfinder, was instrumental in organizing the United Paizo Workers union, which the company agreed to recognize in October. Jarzabski said that while Paizo was a smaller company in a related industry, the union there offered lessons for Activision workers.

“It’s going to be harder for Activision, because they have a bigger network of employees,” Jarzabski said. “But at the end of the day, the most important thing is making connections with as many workers as possible. Forming those bonds and getting groups of people who are connected is going to be powerful.”

At one of the few unionized game makers, Jarzabski said changes are already underway. “My coworkers and I feel empowered. And we’re seeing the culture very slowly starting to shift.”

Whether A Better ABK can advance their efforts will determine how easily other gaming workers can follow suit, Roberts said. The stakes are high for the industry and for Activision Blizzard in particular, because the company is already facing high employee turnover and struggling with public perception, he said.

“If the dominos fall exactly into place and Blizzard gets through this by unionizing, it would advance the case for unionization,” he said. “As long as the company didn’t fall apart.”

To contact the reporter on this story: Maeve Allsup in San Francisco at mallsup@bloomberglaw.com

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Meghashyam Mali at mmali@bloombergindustry.com; Jay-Anne B. Casuga at jcasuga@bloomberglaw.com