Video Game Workers At Microsoft And Activision Take Steps To Unionize

Video Game Workers at Microsoft and Activision Take Steps to Unionize

Video Game Workers At Microsoft And Activision Take Steps To Unionize

Microsoft has remained neutral during a labor organizing bid as the Xbox maker seeks regulatory approval for its Activision acquisition.

A few months after Microsoft announced plans to acquire the video game maker Activision Blizzard, the tech giant said it would remain neutral if Activision workers sought to unionize once the deal went through. Now, a major union is testing Microsoft’s appetite for organizing at a company it already owns.

A group of more than 300 employees at ZeniMax Media, a Maryland-based video game maker owned by Microsoft, has begun voting on whether to form the company’s only union in the United States.

The vote, among quality assurance employees at ZeniMax, which includes prominent studios like Bethesda Game Studios, is taking place under an informal agreement in which Microsoft is staying neutral. Workers can sign a union authorization card, as some began doing last month, or weigh in anonymously for or against unionization on an electronic platform that opened on Friday.

The process will conclude at the end of the month and is more efficient than a typical union election, which is overseen by the National Labor Relations Board and can involve legal wrangling over the terms of the election.

The same day that voting began at Microsoft, a group of workers in quality assurance, or Q.A., at an Activision-owned studio near Albany, N.Y., won a union vote, 14 to 0. That result followed a successful union vote in May by about two dozen Q.A. workers at an Activision studio in Wisconsin, a first for a major North American video game maker. Activision’s planned acquisition by Microsoft, for about $70 billion, is facing antitrust review by regulators.

The organizing campaigns at both companies have been under the auspices of the Communications Workers of America, which also represents employees at telecom companies like Verizon and media companies like The New York Times.

Together, the developments appear to add momentum to a wave of union organizing over the past year at previously nonunion companies like Amazon, Starbucks and Apple. The recent campaigns also suggest that video game workers, who for years have complained of long hours, low pay, and sexual harassment and discrimination, may be increasingly receptive to unionization.

A 300-worker union would be “quite groundbreaking” and could propel Q.A. workers, and even other game workers like developers, to unionize at other large studios, said Johanna Weststar, an associate professor at Western University in Ontario who studies labor in the industry.

A Microsoft spokeswoman said that the organizing campaign was “an example of our labor principles in action” and that the company remained “committed to providing employees with an opportunity to freely and fairly make choices about their workplace representation.”

The union campaign at Microsoft would affect Q.A. workers at several gaming studios that are a part of ZeniMax Media, including Bethesda, which makes hit franchises like The Elder Scrolls and Fallout.

Microsoft, which makes the Xbox series of consoles, acquired ZeniMax for $7.5 billion, a splashy pandemic purchase that helped it compete against rival Sony and its PlayStation consoles, as well as broaden the appeal of Xbox Game Pass, its video game subscription service. The deal closed last year.

The first new major, exclusive-to-Xbox game stemming from that purchase, Starfield, is expected to be released next year by Bethesda. Some of the workers who test it may do so as union members.

Three ZeniMax employees said that while helping to make video games was a job they had once dreamed of, their Q.A. roles had taken a toll.

Victoria Banos, who has worked at one of the company’s studios in Maryland for over four years, said many of her co-workers endured a ritual known as “crunch” a few times each year. It involves working shifts longer than 10 hours during the week and several hours on Saturday, sometimes for weeks in a row, to ensure that a game works properly before the company releases it.

“You’re expected to drop whatever you have going on in your life and work whenever they need you to,” said Ms. Banos, who works on The Elder Scrolls Online. She added that ZeniMax had recently made these overtime hours voluntary, but that many employees still felt pressure to work them.

She estimated that her hourly wage of $25.50 left her tens of thousands of dollars below what she would earn annually if she performed a similar job at a different kind of software company — like one that makes financial or security software.

Other gaming industry Q.A. testers have echoed these points, citing crunch as a continuing problem and arguing that the industry gets away with paying them less because of the allure of its products and the idea that they should be happy to earn an income playing games. Workers say the mind-numbing process of repeatedly testing specific actions for glitches is far different from playing a game for fun.

Some ZeniMax workers also said they preferred more liberal policies on working from home, and they complained that the company’s method of allocating training opportunities, additional responsibility and promotions was often arbitrary or opaque. They said they hoped a union would help create more transparent policies.

Andrés Vázquez, who has been based at a ZeniMax studio in the Dallas area for more than seven years, said he had yet to be promoted to the next job level, senior Q.A. tester, even though some co-workers who joined the company around the same time had been promoted beyond that level. Whenever he has raised the issue with managers or human resources officials, he said, “I get corporate lip service.”

The Microsoft spokeswoman said the company was talking to employees to ensure that they were not taking on too much work, but she did not comment on the other concerns.

Still, the workers praised Microsoft for following through on its promise of neutrality. Unlike workers at Starbucks and Amazon, they say, they have not been summoned to meetings in which supervisors seek to dissuade them from unionizing, and they do not feel that the company has retaliated against them for trying to form a union. (Starbucks and Amazon have denied accusations of retaliation.)

“It’s been an incredible weight lifted off our shoulders,” said Autumn Mitchell, another Q.A. employee based in Maryland, who has worked on Starfield, the forthcoming game.

Workers at the studio near Albany also cited concerns over pay and hours in their decision to unionize, as well as accusations of harassment and discrimination at the company.

Amanda Laven, a Q.A. employee involved in the union campaign at the studio, said workers were frustrated that the company had tried to stop their union election on the grounds that it involved only Q.A. workers rather than the whole studio. The National Labor Relations Board had rejected Activision’s attempts to stop the union election at its Wisconsin studio on similar grounds, but the company appealed to the labor board in this case as well.

“It’s just a stall tactic,” Ms. Laven said in an interview before the vote count.

An Activision spokesman said that the company’s operations in New York and Wisconsin were “very different” in their setup and that it believed the entire Albany studio should be eligible to vote. The spokesman said the company was “considering various legal options,” including seeking to overturn the election.

Activision workers seeking to unionize could find the company more receptive in the future.

In June, Microsoft announced an agreement with the Communications Workers of America in which it pledged to stay neutral if any of Activision’s U.S. employees sought to unionize after it completed its acquisition. Activision has about 7,000 employees in the country, most of whom are eligible to unionize.

Microsoft had a motive for seeking the neutrality agreement: The politically powerful communications workers union had raised questions about the acquisition, which regulators were vetting. The union said its concerns about the acquisition had been resolved after it reached the neutrality agreement.

The company hinted at the time that it would extend the neutrality agreement to current Microsoft employees, saying it was prepared to “build on” the deal. The union essentially tested that proposition when it sought to organize Q.A. workers at ZeniMax, and Microsoft followed through.

Microsoft may have had an additional reason to take a neutral stance. Showing that it has a healthy relationship with organized labor could help the company navigate the acquisition under the union-friendly Biden administration as scrutiny of the deal intensifies.

As if to underscore the point, the union’s president, Chris Shelton, met with the chairwoman of the Federal Trade Commission in October and urged regulators not to block the deal.

Karen Weise contributed reporting.

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