Game Makers Stare Down Major Union Drive

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The effort, led by one of the largest labor unions in the U.S., could bring significant change to an industry that is largely nonunion.

As global video game spending marked a new high in 2019 at $109 billion, per Nielsen's SuperData division, calls to unionize the burgeoning industry's workers have shifted into high gear. On Jan. 7, one of the largest labor unions in the U.S., with more than 700,000 members — the Communications Workers of America (CWA) — revealed plans for a major effort to organize employees for gaming firms.

The drive, called the Campaign to Organize Digital Employees (CODE), could, if successful, bring significant change to an industry that is largely nonunion. "[The video game industry] is a part of the economy that's making truly massive profits, and it's clear that folks are not benefitting to the degree that they ought to," says CWA director of organizing Tom Smith.

Nearly half (47 percent) of workers polled in the 2019 Game Developers Conference "State of the Industry" survey supported staffers' calls to unionize. And game workers are becoming increasingly vocal about their workplaces. A staff walkout last May at League of Legends maker Riot Games roiled the industry over the company's forced arbitration policy disclosed in a lawsuit alleging sexual harassment and gender pay disparity. (Riot settled claims in August.) And Blizzard incited ire inside and outside of its Irvine offices when it suspended a professional Hearthstone player following pro-Hong Kong protester statements in October.

Game staffers have long noted arduous work weeks (some topping 100 hours in certain cases) in order to get a major title ready for launch in the final stretch of development. Only 5 percent of respondents of last year's State of the Industry survey said they worked an average of 51-60 hours a week and even fewer (3 percent) claimed over 60 hours as their average. Most respondents listed an average work week of 36-40 hours (24 percent of those polled) or 41-45 (21 percent). The average salary range for such employees can range from $40,000 on the low end to more than six figures on the high end for developers, per multiple career-listing sites.

Leading CWA CODE are two new full-time staffers, Wes McEnany and Emma Kinema. McEnany previously worked as an organizer for the Service Employees International Union. Kinema is the co-founder of Game Workers Unite (GWU), an organization formed in 2018 aimed at unionizing the games industry. Organizing priorities include pay-rate standards, guaranteed benefits and layoff protections.

But industry leaders have been either skeptical ("I'm not sure what benefit unionization would bring," Take-Two Interactive CEO Strauss Zelnick told THR in June) or noncommittal ("How [members] deal with that specific issue is an independent issue within each company," Entertainment Software Association CEO Stan Pierre-Louis said last February) about unionizing efforts so far.

All major game companies THR reached out to declined to comment or did not respond.

McEnany has never worked in game development. Kinema does have a background in the games industry, working in various capacities at "indie, mobile and AAA" studios, she says. Kinema says she was working in the industry as recently as last fall.

Smith says that CWA has heard from game workers in various studios that support the initiative to unionize. "It runs the gamut from very, very, very small startups and boutique shops to the AAA giant studios," he reveals, though declines to name specific companies.

There are several hurdles to unionizing the video game makers. For one, "game workers" is an umbrella term that applies to a wide variety of different positions with different job requirements, commitments, salaries and contracts. And organizing skilled workers in a hypercompetitive industry may be an uphill battle between "upward mobility and bargaining leverage that typical workers don't [have]," says Scott Witlin, a labor and employment partner at Barnes & Thornburg. "I think that's why historically the unions have been unsuccessful in their attempts to organize."

Both Kinema and Smith support a "wall-to-wall industrial model" of unionization for the games industry, which would essentially place all workers, regardless of discipline, into the same union. Kinema also believes the union should extend to "folks who are engaged in service and supportive work, whether that's food staff, cleaning staff, administrative assistant staff, whatever the case may be."

Because it's still in the early stages, there is no information on what dues members of a proposed game workers union would be required to pay. CWA's constitutional level of dues is currently set at 1.3 percent or 2.25 hours of a member's base pay.

Personal politics can be another hurdle to unionization. According to GWU's official "points of unity" listed on its website, the organization is "committed to remaining non-sectarian and … will not censor or deride individuals for their particular political tendency." However, it also states that it reserves the "right to censor politics that are pro-employer" and also contains a point stating its refusal to "allow members into our spaces who actively serve reactionary systems of violence (i.e. police and members of police unions)."

Smith stresses that CWA and GWU are "distinct organizations."

"The core tenets of GWU remain their core tenets," he says, adding that CWA's membership is "very broad and involves folks from a variety of backgrounds." The two organizations remain partners, and Smith says CWA is "very excited to work in partnership with GWU."

Smith did not share specific financial details behind the new CODE initiative but did stress that outside of McEnany's and Kinema's hiring, CWA also has "dozens of other organizers working around the country on other levels. We are committed in a big way, and that will continue to show itself."

"At the core, we have really broken labor law in this country," he says. "We allow workers' human rights to be violated every day, and that's certainly the case in games and the broader tech industry."

A version of this story first appeared in the Jan. 16 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.