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Raven Software union moves to vote absent Activision Blizzard recognition

(The Washington Post illustration; Raven Software)
6 min

Activision Blizzard did not respond to workers’ request for recognition of a union formed by quality assurance testers at Raven Software, the workers said Tuesday evening. Last week, 34 quality assurance workers seeking to unionize at Raven had set a deadline of 6 p.m. Eastern time Tuesday for a response from the software developer’s parent company and will now proceed to file for a union election with the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB).

The 34 workers at Madison, Wisconsin-based Raven say they have a supermajority of votes within their department, meaning they can formalize their union via the NLRB without management recognition at Activision Blizzard. If the union, dubbed the Game Workers Alliance, wins 50 percent plus one of the votes within the department, Activision Blizzard must begin bargaining with the group over work conditions in good faith.

Most of the testers work on the popular game “Call of Duty: Warzone” and had been working toward unionization for months. They said they were motivated by recent layoffs, excessive overtime and low pay.

Shortly after the deadline, Brian Raffel, Raven’s studio head, sent an email to the staff. Activision Blizzard shared a statement that echoed Raffel’s email. “After carefully reviewing and considering the CWA’s initial request of the company, we worked quickly to find a mutually acceptable solution with the CWA that would have led to an expedited election process. Unfortunately, the parties could not reach an agreement,” Raffel wrote. “[We] expect that the union will soon be moving forward with the filing of a petition to the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) for an election of eligible Raven employees. If filed, the company will respond formally to that petition promptly.

“The most important thing to the company is that each eligible employee has the opportunity to have their voice heard and their individual vote counted, and we think all employees at Raven should have a say in this decision.”

The Game Workers Alliance and the CWA expressed confidence in their petition to the NLRB for a union election in a joint statement.

“We are proud to file with the NLRB as we enjoy supermajority support for our union and know that together, we will gain the formal legal recognition we have earned,” read the statement.

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

On Monday afternoon, 23 Raven Software quality assurance testers were pulled into a meeting with human resources for an “Update to QA.” The employees were all testers who had received promotions to become full-time employees last December. Management told them they would be split into various departments across the studio, including animation, art, audio, design, engineering and live operations production.

Both the meeting with quality assurance testers and an ensuing five-minute studio-wide meeting were led by Raffel, who did not mention unionization. John Obligato, human resources partner at Activision and Raven’s primary human resources contact, sat in on both meetings, chiming in at times and saying “some testers may excel” and “we want to make sure we’re developing career development paths.”

It is unclear what impact the reorganization will have on workers’ unionizing efforts according to labor lawyers.

“The timing of Activision Blizzard['s] Raven announcement raises the question of whether they are retaliating against the QA employees because of their union activities,” said Cornell professor of labor and employment law Risa Lieberwitz, though she noted the decision to divide the employees would not interrupt the unionization process.

Analysis: The video game industry is closer to unionization than ever before

Wilma Liebman, former chairman of the National Labor Relations Board under former president Barack Obama, said that Activision Blizzard management could be trying to dilute the group of potential union members by moving them around, or simply dilute support for the union.

“The union would have a decent case to make that by doing this on the heels of a request for recognition and on the heels of all this union organizing activity, that this was somehow unlawful, intended to kill the union strength,” said Liebman. “I would say that having seen these kinds of things many times, that there’s possibly more afoot here than meets the eye.”

The CWA sent a statement Tuesday claiming the meetings were “nothing more than a tactic to thwart Raven QA workers who are exercising their right to organize.”

Onah Rongstad, a current Raven Software quality assurance tester, said Tuesday that “so long as we are testing, we are a unit that is linked by our function within the studio. Our solidarity won’t be broken by something like reorganization.”

The studio laid off 12 quality assurance contractors in early December, with their last day set for Jan. 28. The layoffs prompted several dozen workers across the company to strike in protest. That work stoppage lasted seven weeks, ending Jan. 22.

The Game Workers Alliance cited allegations of toxic corporate culture at their parent company among the reasons that motivated them to organize. Last July, California’s Department of Fair Employment and Housing (DFEH) filed a gender-based discrimination, inequality and harassment lawsuit against Activision Blizzard, alleging the company had a “frat boy culture” that included excessive drinking and sexual harassment.

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.

Why is the games industry so burdened with crunch? It starts with labor laws.

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. Blizzard Entertainment announced Tuesday afternoon that it was hiring artists, engineers and designers to work on a new untitled survival game.

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.”