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Unionisation is set to be one of the biggest stories in 2022 | Opinion

As employees seek to retain flexible work styles, and endless scandals sink the reputation of management and HR departments, collective bargaining is back on the menu

As the end of the year approaches, it's customary to cast an eye back over the last 12 months and try to make some sense of the overarching narratives of the year -- to wit, ongoing pandemic struggles, ongoing supply chain shortages, and a seemingly endless flood of tales of awfulness from within some of the industry's top publishers.

In doing so, it's also tempting to wonder where those narratives go next; what will be the ongoing stories that hold our attention and define the industry's evolution in the coming year, and years beyond?

One story that's made relatively little impact on the industry thus far, but appears poised to become a major factor in the coming years, is the whole thorny question of labour organisation.

Unlike many other creative industries, the video games industry has very few unionised staff. This is largely an accident of history; the whole concept of video games as an industry is only a few decades old, and the sector came of age in an era that was much more hostile to organised labour than counterpart industries such as film, TV and music.

Moreover, video games companies often see themselves as existing in a kind of middle ground between those creative industries and tech companies, the latter of which also tend to be very hostile to unions -- although unionisation has been gaining ground in that area over the past few years, as deep-rooted labour relations problems have started to make free snacks, break room pool tables and office Nerf gun battles look like a rather poor substitute for actual workers' rights.

Unionisation has been gaining ground as labour relations problems have started to make free snacks, break room pool tables and office Nerf gun battles look like a rather poor substitute for actual workers' rights

In video games, unionisation remains a movement very much in its infancy; while outside the United States some steps have been made (Paradox' Swedish studio being a notable unionisation success in the past couple of years), there's been little progress towards unionisation overall and almost none in the USA.

This is unsurprising; forming a union in the United States is pretty difficult, with legal protections for employees who attempt to do so being fairly thin and easily circumvented, and the penalties even for companies who outright break the law in the actions they take against union formation being almost pathetically weak. Despite this, however, campaigns to get games industry workers to organise have been slowly gathering momentum -- and there are two major factors which I suspect will turn this (and the likely backlash from many companies in the industry) into a major story in the coming years.

The first factor is that a very large number of games industry workers, across a full range of companies and specialisations, have found themselves with something they want from their employers -- which in many cases their employers aren't entirely keen to grant them. That thing is an indefinite continuation of the various flexible working practices that companies were forced to introduce by the pandemic.

Over the past two years employees have had a taste of how work can be when there's a dramatic degree of flexibility over hours, location, and so on; they've become accustomed to the extent to which family and personal life can be more effectively fitted around these working styles. Some employers have embraced that and committed to continuing to work in those ways; others, perhaps a majority, are very keen to have their employees return to pre--pandemic working styles as quickly as possible. This sets up a pretty significant source of conflict between many companies and their staff, who will no doubt notice how much better their negotiations over the "new normal" go when they make their demands collectively rather than going in to see HR one by one.

Which brings us to the second factor -- the absolute collapse of any lingering remnants of faith games industry staff may ever have had in HR departments to actually look out for their best interests. The non-stop torrent of revelations about companies like Activision Blizzard (and others -- let's not pretend that the likes of Ubisoft aren't constantly heaving sighs of relief at Activision Blizzard's problems being so much worse that their own negative headlines are relegated to the smaller font sizes) has exposed organisations that are dysfunctional and rotted all the way to the top.

Some Activision Blizzard employees are campaigning to sign union authorization cards, reports said last week

Some Activision Blizzard employees are campaigning to sign union authorization cards, reports said last week

But a through-line of these stories has been the extent to which HR departments have protected abusive and corrupt senior staff to the point of being complicit in their actions at various points. There are plenty of decent HR staff in this industry, and I know many of them have spent a solid chunk of 2021 with their heads in their hands over these stories, knowing exactly how it makes their departments look -- but one thing is certain, which is that the common anti-unionisation argument that employees' issues are best handled quickly and directly by the company's management and HR now sounds like an unfunny punchline rather than a convincing statement.

It should come as no surprise, then, that there's been a unionisation push at Activision Blizzard, backed by the Communication Workers of America union. The main thing that firm seems to have been producing in the past year isn't video games, it's textbook examples of how nasty things can get for staff at a company when their only recourse is to HR and senior staff who very distinctly do not have their backs.

Whatever your position on unions overall -- and I recognise that there will be people reading this who are both fervently for and against them, as well as all points in between -- it's very clear that Activision Blizzard's employees would have benefited from access to some kind of alternative recourse outside of the company's own formal structures, and the large number of walk-outs, protests, mass-signed letters and so on which have come from the firm's staff in the past few months makes it clear that there are a lot of people at the company who are coming around to the idea of labour having collective power.

It's very clear that Activision Blizzard's employees would have benefited from access to some kind of alternative recourse outside of the company's own formal structures

It must be a pretty thankless task to be in charge of trying to push union-busting propaganda at Activision Blizzard right now, since the claim that employees are best served by "active, transparent dialogue between leaders and employees" -- which was emailed to the company's staff this week in an attempt to stop them signing CWA union cards -- must have provoked some pretty bitter laughter in many quarters. Active, transparent dialogue between leaders and employees? There's a first time for everything, I guess, but is anyone really convinced that either Bobby Kotick or his company are young enough dogs to learn this impressive new trick?

Nonetheless, the chances are that the first really big unionisation related story of the coming year will be a ratcheting up of efforts to head off the formation of a union at Activision Blizzard; and even in spite of the company's dysfunction, those efforts may well succeed. Forming a union is hard, and the tactics that can be employed to prevent such efforts can get pretty nasty; expect to see a few eyebrow-raising efforts made in the coming months.

Activision Blizzard, however, isn't the only place in the industry where this movement is gathering steam. Other publishers and major studios also have the same combination of factors that is giving the unionisation drive at Activision Blizzard legs; each one where union cards start being circulated and people start discussing the possibilities is another pebble starting to bounce its way down the mountainside. Not an avalanche yet, of course; perhaps never an avalanche, but all it takes is one pebble in the wrong place at the wrong time.

There's also a bottom-up movement towards unionisation which is generating even smaller pebbles, but is nonetheless worth keeping an eye on. Small studio Vodeo Games became the first games company in the USA to recognise its employees' unionisation earlier this month; the studio is tiny and the unionisation process seems to have been an entirely amicable agreement, so it's hardly the banner of a revolution being raised, but that in itself is actually pretty important.

Unions are often demonised in union-busting propaganda as being hugely damaging to companies' competitiveness and in constant conflict with company management -- seeing smaller companies like Vodeo voluntarily recognising an employee union, formed by staff who are actually pretty happy with their work conditions by all accounts, helps to normalise this as simply being an ordinary part of how companies and their staff interact, and defangs the whole Red Scare angle to the whole thing. It's important not to read too much into the voluntary recognition of a union in a company with a little over a dozen staff. It's also important to remember those bouncing pebbles that sometimes start avalanches.

Where will this story go in 2022? At a guess, we'll see a few more small studios (and maybe some medium sized ones -- there are more than a few bosses at decent-sized studios who have spoken positively about the idea of labour organisation in the industry in the past) voluntarily recognising their employees' unions, generating a few more positive headlines around the idea.

At the same time, the campaigns against unionisation at large publishers -- especially Activision Blizzard -- will heat up and while in some instances this will involve companies making concessions to convince staff not to unionise, in other cases we can expect things to turn pretty nasty. Staff at those companies stand to gain far more from collective bargaining than their colleagues at small firms, and management at large companies (especially publicly traded ones) will resist tooth and nail for exactly that reason.

Unfortunately, it's probably inevitable that this will end up including some nasty divide-and-conquer tactics, which aim to cause friction among different groups of employees -- especially between permanent and contract staff -- and some of that is likely to bubble over into 2022's headlines. I wouldn't go so far as to say that the avalanche towards unionisation has started in 2021 -- but if you listen closely next year, you'll definitely hear quite a few pebbles bouncing their way down the slopes and echoing through the valleys.

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