Some of the lowest-paid workers at Middleton’s Raven Software made industry history Monday afternoon, voting overwhelmingly in favor of the first union at a major U.S. video game company.
Twenty-eight quality assurance testers at the studio, an Activision Blizzard subsidiary that plays a key role in making the top-grossing Call of Duty game franchise, were eligible to vote in a union election earlier this month. Ballots, due last Friday, were counted Monday afternoon at the Milwaukee office of the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB). Members of the press were permitted to watch by video conference.
Twenty-four ballots were cast, and two were challenged. Of the counted ballots, 19 were in favor of unionizing, and three were against. The two challenged votes were not opened and counted, as they were too few to affect the outcome.
If neither party files an objection to the election outcome, the results will be certified on May 31. At that point, the company will be required to bargain in good faith with the union.
Jessica Gonzalez, a former Blizzard quality assurance tester, now works as an organizer for the Communications Workers of America, which has supported the Raven workers in the unionization process.
She and the Raven workers anticipated that they’d win, she said, but the wide margin was welcome news. “We definitely won by a landslide,” Gonzalez said from the Memorial Union Terrace, where a group of Raven workers, organizers and supporters gathered Monday afternoon to watch the vote count.
One of those workers was Marie Carroll, a member of the union organizing committee who joined the effort after 12 of her colleagues lost their jobs in December. That, combined with prior concerns over pay, made her “want to have a better voice,” she said.
As the NLRB staff read out one “yes” after another Monday afternoon, Carroll felt “absolute elation.”
“Just seeing the numbers rise and being able to clinch that victory … made all of the months of planning and toiling and working and worrying really worth it,” Carroll said. “I could not be happier.”
A coworker and fellow committee member, who asked to remain anonymous, said the decisive win was “empowering,” showing union organizers that their efforts had broad support. “I think it's important for workers to be able to have their voices heard in a collaborative and tangible way.”
In an emailed statement, Activision spokesperson Kelvin Liu made clear that the company’s management is not celebrating.
“We respect and believe in the right of all employees to decide whether or not to support or vote for a union,” Liu wrote. “We believe that an important decision that will impact the entire Raven Software studio of roughly 350 people should not be made by 19 Raven employees.”
Activision has about 10,000 employees in total and is in the process of being acquired by Microsoft for nearly $69 billion. A Microsoft spokesperson told the Washington Post in March that it “will not stand in the way” if workers vote to unionize.
Workers allege union busting tactics
Quality assurance testers check video games for bugs, sometimes working for upwards of 12 hours a day during “crunch” times, when game studios work overtime to complete a new game on schedule. At Raven, those workers had a starting wage of $15 an hour until last November, when it was raised to $17. Activision has since announced that the minimum hourly wage for all U.S.-based quality assurance testers would increase to at least $20 an hour, but it said that federal labor laws prevented it from applying that change to Raven workers ahead of a union election.
The union drive was triggered in part by the December layoffs of 12 Raven quality assurance testers, as parent company Activision moved many workers from temporary roles to full-time staff positions. Workers announced a strike, calling for those workers to be rehired and placed in full-time roles.
Later that month, workers filed a petition with the NLRB stating that their union, the Game Workers Alliance, had the support of a majority of their department.
In the months since, workers say management pressured them to vote against the union. In one Twitter thread, Game Workers’ Alliance organizers described a company meeting. “Leadership asked questions about all the bad things a union could do. But they failed to ask what good things a union could do,” they wrote.
Meanwhile, just as workers began their union drive, management at Raven reorganized staff, announcing that quality assurance testers, who previously operated as their own department, would now be embedded on teams throughout the company.
Some workers believe the company made that change in order to make it harder for the quality assurance testers to unionize. One anonymous quality tester at Raven told the Washington Post that neither they nor company management knew who the newly-embedded testers were supposed to report to when the change was first made. Several weeks later, the worker said, “it is still not clear to me exactly what I’m supposed to be doing.”
Indeed, Activision attorneys pointed to this new workplace structure when it argued in a February NLRB hearing that the union must broaden its pool of eligible workers. The company sought to include nearly all of the non-managerial workers at the roughly 350-person Middleton studio, a move union advocates say is designed to reduce the chances of a pro-union vote.
But the NLRB in April sided with the union, saying that the quality assurance testers were “sufficiently distinct” in part because their typical wage of $18.50 is “well below the minimum of any other position.”
“We are disappointed that a decision that could significantly impact the future of our entire studio will be made by fewer than 10% of our employees,” an Activision spokesperson told the Cap Times following that ruling. “We believe a direct relationship with team members is the best path to achieving individual and company goals.”
‘Underneath the bottom rung’
“I’m overjoyed that the unfortunately necessary work of the Raven QA staff and the various organizers has paid off,” said Keith Fuller, who worked as a programmer and producer at Raven Software for 12 years and now advises companies on workplace culture through his Madison company All About EX.
When the Raven workers went on strike in December, Fuller told the Cap Times that quality assurance testers play “an incredibly important role” in releasing a high-quality game but are “underneath the bottom rung” at game development companies, where they are often laid off seasonally as the game production cycle fluctuates.
“That’s unfortunately a trend that has been in the games industry for years, but it’s something of a hallmark for Activision in recent years,” Fuller said, noting that in 2019 the company raked in record earnings of $7.5 billion and then laid off nearly 800 people.
He wonders whether this union could reverse that trend. “I would like to believe that this is a dam-breaking moment,” Fuller said, hoping these workers “who have been put upon enough” would now be able to “put in place protections that company leadership should have already granted them.” He’d especially like to see policies that address “the most fundamental issues,” including job security for employees.
Gonzalez, the organizer with Communications Workers of America, is hopeful too. “We're going to secure great working conditions for Raven QA,” Gonzalez said, but they’re not stopping there.
“We want to be the industry standard for how workers are treated in the video game industry. And I think that, with this, more people are going to feel empowered to organize their workspace. I'm hoping that this is the first spark that creates a wave of workers that are working towards better conditions.”
To be eligible to vote in the election, employees must have worked for the company during the pay period ending April 16. After laying off a dozen quality assurance testers in December, Raven hired another nine, which sent the union scrambling to recruit the newest workers, the Washington Post reported earlier this month.
The Game Workers Alliance is the first union at an AAA video game studio in the U.S. In December, Vodeo, an independent game studio with just 13 employees and contract workers, voluntarily recognized a union formed by its workers.
Editor’s note: A previous version of this story incorrectly stated that the Middleton studio has around 10,000 employees. Activision has around 10,000 employees in total, but only about 350 work at Raven Software in Middleton. The story also incorrectly stated that the layoffs and strike occurred in January. They occurred in December.