My co-workers and me at the videogame studio Tender Claws left our desks at noon on July 17.
Two of our work-from home colleagues came into the office unannounced. Our out-of-state colleagues joined them virtually via a laptop. We passed out a letter and read it aloud together: “Dear management: we are proud to announce we are forming the Tender Claws Human Union.”
Two weeks later, Tender Claws was granted voluntary recognition. fourth video game studio with a certified unionNorth America. Although our company is small with only 11 employees, our victory is part of a larger national wave of organizing in tech and games.
These two industries were virtually ununionized before 2020. Today, there are more than 3,000 of usIn the Communications Workers (CWA).
This is an example: the day we submitted our petition, Blizzard Albany’s quality assurance workers launched their own union drive. This small unit would create a second union foothold in Activision Blizzard gaming giant, well-known for titles like World of Warcraft or Call of Duty.
Trouble in “Paradise”
Game workers make our living building video games. We create 2D and 3-D art, compose audio, run quality control tests, code games, write character dialogues, manage game player communities, and perform customer service. Our industry has grown to become a financial giant because of our labor. forecasted to generate $200 billionThis year.
People often think of high-tech workers as ping-pong-playing elites. However, the truth is that they are not. Some in our industry do make six figures, but many are paid well below the cost of living in the country’s most expensive cities. Most customer service and quality assurance workers barely make the minimum wage.
From Google to Activision Blizzard the workplaces are split between full time employees and a small number of temps, vendors, or contractors. Work-life balance is notoriously poor for both groups due to “crunch,” long stretches of overtime in the months or years before the launch of new software. Harassment and discrimination are rampant in workplaces that were dominated by straight white men.
Tender Claws was created as a union unit to reduce stress, negotiate for sustainable career advancement, and diversify the hiring process. Tender Claws was founded with the intention of being a progressive workplace, and management has made many efforts to act fairly, but we aren’t immune from the dynamics of the industry. A better workplace is only possible when workers have direct input through their union into the decisions that impact them.
The problems in games and tech aren’t new. Workers have been organizing informally for decades, using salary spreadsheets, class action lawsuits, whisper networks, press exposés, and more recently, walkouts. Some of these standalone actions have yielded moderate wins, and over time they’ve developed consciousness in the power of collective action across our industries.
It can be tempting to stay in informal organizing if you work in a non-unionized industry. A one-off, clean action is easier than organizing a union. It’s easier to get co-workers to commit to do something only once, and you can get away without forming a proper leadership structure.
This is true for both sides. Standalone actions are easier because they don’t fundamentally challenge the balance of power between workers and management. It’s hard to hold on to the wins. Managers will feel less watched once things are calmed down. They can then quietly retaliate to troublemakers and restore the status-quo.
Dropping the U Word
Fellow organizers and I used to refer to suggesting unionization as “dropping the U-word.” We told ourselves that if an informal action went really well we might escalate to unionizing. The perfect time never came.
Last fall, after three years of my organizing with volunteer groups, a friend gave me some tough love: “If you’re calling it ‘the U-word’ with me, how could you be ready to say it to a co-worker?” This was the kick in the butt I needed. Over the following week I reached out to co-workers who had participated in collective actions and I ripped off the Band-Aid: “How would you like to form a union?”
Within a week, we had a core team of organizers. A few months later, we had an organizing committee. We made many mistakes, learned a lot and had many ups and downs. We had 100 percent support in our bargaining group by June and union recognition by July.
Sometimes being bold and open-minded can make all the difference. No one else will unionize our industries for we.
A Movement Is Born
The grassroots organization Game Workers Unite emerged at an industry trade show in March 2018, in protest of a roundtable called “Union Now? Pros, Cons, and Consequences of Unionization for Game Devs.” The moderator, a former CEO and the then-head of a toothless “game developer advocacy” nonprofit, was clearly not neutral. And as more than 100 angry game workers flooded into the event, it became clear that she was the only one in the room concerned with the “cons” of unionizing.
Game Workers Unite chapters were established around the globe by organizers after the conference. We then channeled our energy into organizing. We sowed the seeds for future unionization by organizing trainings, connecting with established unions, building networks of agitated workers, and creating connections with them.
The CWA connected with grassroots networks such as Game Workers Unite in 2020 and brought the support a major union to North American gaming and tech industries. They pooled their resources and hired staff organizers under the Campaign to Organize Digital employees (CODE–CWA).
This effort was borne out in December 2021 when Vodeo, an independent game studio, was founded. North America’s first game workers union. They were subsequently followed by quality assurance personnel at Activision Blizzard’s Raven software subsidiary.
The tech industry has experienced a similar trajectory to video games. The Tech Workers Coalition, a grassroots organization, was founded in 2014. It advocates for collective action as well as unionization in the same manner Game Workers Unite.
In 2020, recognition was given to the OPIEU and Glitch unions. And in 2021, workers at Google and other Alphabet subsidiaries formed a “militant minority” union affiliated with CODE-CWA. They recently surpassed 1,000 members.
Game and tech workers are suffering, and that’s reason enough to unionize. However, organizing high-tech workplaces can have strategic benefits for the rest the labor movement.
Technology has overhauled the working world — consider high-tech surveillance in warehouses, digitized offices and schools, and the apps used to gig-ify many jobs.
Google Search, Amazon Web Services, Twitter and Twitter are so common that they have become part of civic infrastructure despite being privately owned. The world’s most powerful people have more power than most nations because they control the production of these technologies.
For workers, all this tech has meant that we are less powerful, more isolated and more closely monitored. But that’s not inevitable. Technology could be liberating, if the decisions on how it’s used weren’t left to a small handful of millionaires and billionaires.
We can use our collective power to improve the world by unionizing tech. Imagine if we refused our skills to exploit gig workers or target children with in-game purchases or wage wars.
The first step is for game and tech workers to reject the lie that we are “not like other workers” and join our siblings in the labor movement.
Gamers and strippers
Southern California game workers are experiencing surprising friendship. strip club dancers on strike at Star Garden — another group that’s “not like other workers.”
Game Workers of SoCal organizers have helped create buttons and signs for strippers, and we often walk their picket lines. Tender Claws organizers supported Activision Blizzard workers when they walked out of the job due to harassment and discrimination.
While the contexts are different in each case, Activision Blizzard workers and the striking strippers are fighting for the same vision of safer and more fair workplaces. We have more things in common than we realize.