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Activision Blizzard employees at Raven Software ask management to recognize new union

(Washington Post illustration; iStock)

Over 30 quality assurance testers at Activision Blizzard-run Raven Software have formally asked management to recognize their union.

The 34 testers, most of them tasked with working on the popular game “Call of Duty: Warzone,” received a majority of signatures within their department to form a union. The workers in the aspiring union, named the Game Workers Alliance, cited recent layoffs, excessive overtime, low pay, expectations to relocate and allegations of toxic corporate culture at their parent company as the reasons motivating them to unionize.

Activision Blizzard said in a statement that it is “carefully reviewing the request for voluntary recognition.” It added that it believes “a direct relationship between the company and its team members delivers the strongest workforce opportunities,” but that it would respect workers’ rights to join a union. In a Wednesday filing with the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission, the company said none of its employees were part of a union, and that, to the company’s knowledge, there was no ongoing strike or work stoppage.

If recognized, the Game Workers Alliance would be the first union at a blockbuster video game company. Late last year, Vodeo became the first North American video game company to unionize. With just over a dozen workers, the indie studio organized under very different conditions, but Activision Blizzard employees said they learned from their example in their efforts.

Several dozen workers at the company have been engaged in a seven-week work stoppage, which began after Activision Blizzard management laid off 12 Raven contractors on Dec. 3. Members of that group told The Washington Post the company had issued assurances for eight months it would increase wages, so the firings felt like a betrayal. They began collecting signatures in an effort to unionize and went on strike Dec. 6, issuing demands that included the rehiring of the laid off contractors to full-time positions.

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“Immediately after work [in early December], we all got together, some people came over to my house and we comforted one another and we cried together,” said Onah Rongstad, a current Raven Software quality assurance tester at the Madison, Wisconsin-based company. “And then over the coming days, we got together and said we can’t just be silent about this, we can’t just let this happen, and then finally decided to strike. We’ve had a real coming together at Raven QA [Quality Assurance] after the beginning of the strike in early December, and we’re really excited that [we’re creating] this beautiful union as the outcome of this.”

Asked for comment about the striking workers, an Activision spokesman said, “The company supports our employees’ right to express their opinions in a safe and nonthreatening way, and [National Labor Relations Act] rights in general, and will not retaliate for any decision to participate in a walkout.”

The effort to unionize was done with the support of media union Communications Workers of America (CWA). The 12 testers who were told they would be let go on Dec. 3 are among the signatories calling for a union to form. Their contracts are set to expire on Jan. 28. Even after they leave the company, the department would still hold a supermajority of union card signatures.

“It has become evident that equity will never be achieved without collective bargaining power,” the testers wrote in a letter to management sent Friday and reviewed by The Post. They noted Raven’s departmental leadership had told Activision Blizzard not to lay off the 12 contractors, but they had been ignored.

According to a 2021 Gallup poll, unions are more popular than they’ve been in over 50 years, with 68 percent of Americans in favor of collective power, including 77 percent of people ages 18 to 34. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reported Thursday that the number of workers belonging to unions declined by 241,000 last year to 14 million in the country, with a union membership rate of just over 10 percent.

Raven is among the Activision Blizzard-owned studios set to be acquired by Microsoft. The maker of Windows and Xbox made waves across the tech and gaming industries Tuesday when it announced it would buy Activision Blizzard for nearly $69 billion in an all-cash deal expected to close by June 2023, pending regulatory approval. Microsoft declined to comment.

Raven Software is a studio of over 300 employees and was acquired by Activision in 1997 for $12 million. It’s mainly known for working on the Call of Duty franchise, including games like “Warzone,” “Black Ops: Cold War” and “Modern Warfare.” Activision Blizzard itself has over 9,500 employees and multiple studios, including those that make games like “World of Warcraft” and “Candy Crush Saga.”

The video game industry is closer to unionization than ever before

In their letter, Raven testers are giving management five days to respond, including the weekend. If the company doesn’t respond by the end of Jan. 25, Pacific time, employees plan to file for a union election through the National Labor Relations Board. Since the testers have a supermajority of votes, they can go through the National Labor Relations Board to have the union formalized without management recognition. If the union wins 50 percent plus one of the votes within the department, Activision Blizzard must begin bargaining over work conditions in good faith.

The workers chose the name “Game Workers Alliance,” rather than a more specific name referring to their studio or department, so that other parts of the company and other games workers across the country could join over time. To do so, those parts of Raven or other divisions at Activision Blizzard will need to collect a majority of union authorization signatures and then vote in favor of a union.

In a Dec. 10 email viewed by The Post, Chief Administrative Officer Brian Bulatao wrote that employees should “take time to consider the consequences of your signature” on a union authorization card and suggested that the company could fix its culture problems without a union. Employees throughout Activision Blizzard began to discuss unionization as a possibility starting last summer, when California’s Department of Fair Employment and Housing (DFEH) sued the company for gender-based discrimination, inequality and sexual harassment, alleging a “frat boy” corporate culture.

“My expectation is that whether we’re talking about [Activision Blizzard] management or Microsoft, any future management needs to respect workers’ rights to organize,” CWA organizing director Tom Smith said. “This company has clearly shown us what low-road employment standards look like. This is a moment when they can pivot and embrace high-road labor standards.”

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When asked this week about how Xbox would treat a possible union at the company they plan to acquire, CEO of Microsoft Gaming Phil Spencer said he was not familiar with unions.

“I’m going to be honest, I don’t have a lot of personal experience with unions. I’ve been at Microsoft for 33 years,” Spencer said. “So I’m not going to try to come across as an expert on this, but I’ll say we’ll be having conversations about what empowers them to do their best work, which as you can imagine in a creative industry, is the most important thing for us.”

Cornell professor of labor and employment law Risa Lieberwitz said the Microsoft acquisition should not impact Activision Blizzard employees’ current efforts to unionize, since the movement is still in its early stages.

“With Microsoft’s acquisition of Activision Blizzard, the employees of Activision Blizzard can continue to exercise their rights to engage in collective activity — including their efforts to unionize,” she said. “Given the negative publicity that Activision Blizzard has received regarding its conduct toward employees, Microsoft should pay particular attention to the importance of respecting employees’ rights to organize.”

Nathan Grayson and Gene Park contributed to this report.