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U.S. Senator warns Activision CEO about undermining unionization efforts as Raven NLRB hearing wraps

(The Washington Post illustration; iStock)

In a letter to Activision Blizzard CEO Bobby Kotick Wednesday, Sen. Tammy Baldwin (D-Wis.) called on Kotick to “negotiate in good faith with the workers and suspend any efforts to undermine your employees’ legal right to form a union and collectively bargain.”

Baldwin’s letter arrived a day after the conclusion of a National Labor Relations Board hearing between Activision-owned Raven Software, based in Wisconsin, and a group of that company’s quality assurance testers who are attempting to unionize their department. The letter, a copy of which was obtained by The Washington Post, was also sent to Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella. Microsoft recently announced its intentions to purchase Activision Blizzard for nearly $69 billion, pending approval by the Federal Trade Commission.

Baldwin wrote in the letter that she “will be following the proceedings at the National Labor Relations Board and Raven Software closely. I urge you and the management at Raven Software to remain neutral in the coming NLRB election in order to allow your employees to decide their representatives for themselves.”

Activision Blizzard confirmed receipt of the letter but declined to comment. Microsoft did not respond to comment.

Baldwin has a track record of being pro-labor. She’s a member of the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions (HELP), and has introduced pro-worker legislation in Congress.

The letter ramps up public pressure on Activision Blizzard after it elected not to voluntarily recognize the union, dubbed the Game Workers Alliance, in late January sending the proceedings to a review by the NLRB.

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Cornell professor of labor and employment law Risa Lieberwitz said that even though Sen. Baldwin “does not have direct power” in the unionization situation, her letter could “bring more public attention to Activision’s conduct.”

“It is significant for a U.S. Senator to send a strong message that Activision Blizzard should conduct themselves in a way that respects workers’ rights to unionize,” Lieberwitz said. “This could influence public opinion about Activision Blizzard, which can have a negative impact on the company’s public image and reputation.”

In the four-day hearing with the NLRB that ended Tuesday, Activision Blizzard and the workers argued over whether workers should be allowed to form a so-called “micro union” of several dozen employees inside the quality assurance department. Shortly after the department announced its intentions to unionize, Activision Blizzard announced the testers would be redistributed around the company and embedded into different departments, a fact Baldwin noted in her letter. The company also argued that all Raven employees should be allowed to vote on unionization. A larger group would require more employee votes in order to unionize, whereas the testers had already reached the needed majority of votes within their department.

Much of the testimony discussed employees’ duties and whether quality assurance testing was distinct enough from other departments. Activision argued that the testers are part of the development and production process, including getting to contribute ideas to “Call of Duty” games. It pointed to how, as of late January, testers have been moved across different departments in Raven, including animation, art, audio, design, engineering and live operations production.

A ruling from the NLRB is expected in the next several months.

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One Raven Software quality assurance tester told The Washington Post she hopes the hearing proves to the NLRB that company leaders “really don’t know much of anything about QA’s daily duties.”

“They seem so far removed from the actual day-to-day activities,” she said, requesting anonymity for fear of retaliation. “QA testers still primarily test the game, that is their main job description and what people applied for. But asking them to not only test the game but even working alongside developers while expecting to keep them at their current pay rate is beyond disappointing to hear from our leadership.”

Microsoft’s purchase of Activision Blizzard comes with additional stipulations around workers’ unionization efforts. Activision Blizzard is not allowed to voluntarily recognize a union or to enter into a collective bargaining agreement without Microsoft’s approval, according to a recent SEC filing from Activision.

Lieberwitz said that regardless of Microsoft stipulating it must approve Activision workers’ unionization effort as part of the acquisition terms, both companies still have to follow the law, which includes NLRB rulings.

“If the NLRB decides that a bargaining unit of QA employees is appropriate — as petitioned for by the CWA — then Activision Blizzard and Microsoft must comply with the NLRB ruling,” she said.