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Unionisation pushes reveal the industry’s inequalities | Opinion

Unionisation pushes reveal the industry’s inequalities | Opinion

Back at the start of this year, I predicted that the gradual but inexorable spread of unionisation efforts throughout the games industry would become one of the biggest stories of 2022.

It wasn’t a tremendously brave prediction; by the end of last year, the motion in this direction was already very clear, with years and years of largely unproductive musing over the potential for unionisation being galvanised into sudden action by the dissatisfaction many staff felt with how their companies approached their safety and quality of life concerns during the pandemic.

Sure enough, 2022 has brought more than its fair share of union-related stories — not just in the games business, but also in the broader tech industry and among newer “disruptive” businesses. In games, unionisation efforts have focused around smaller studios,where in some cases unionisation has been done pretty amicably and with the blessing of studio management, and QA departments, where it’s been a far more contentious issue.

One of the biggest catalysts for unionisation pushes, however, was the ongoing series of revelations about abuse and unequal treatment at Activision Blizzard — whose obvious role in pushing staff to think perhaps some kind of organised way to hold management to account was only boosted by the brutally incompetent way in which the company’s most senior executives responded to the seemingly endless flood of bad news.

The push to unionise at Activision Blizzard’s various studios hasn’t gone away, but much of the wind has been taken out of its sails by Microsoft’s plan to acquire the publisher — a move which many staff expect will involve the departure (albeit with golden parachutes) of most of the top executives who failed to do anything about the company’s abusive culture, not to mention Microsoft’s human resources department taking over from Activision Blizzard’s clearly dysfunctional HR.

How that pans out remains to be seen, but Microsoft’s bid for the publisher has in all likelihood prevented the industry from seeing a full-scale unionisation drive at one of its biggest companies this year — a drive that would have been extremely hard to resist given the rock bottom levels of faith many staff there had in the organisation’s management.

The divide-and-conquer strategy so often employed by companies whose workers are trying to unionise is pretty easy to implement when the staff are already divided to begin with

Even if the biggest opportunity for union advocates has been taken off the board, though, smaller efforts continue in many other parts of the industry. This week we learned that contract QA workers at Bioware — many of whom have worked at the studio across multiple projects — are pushing to unionise, citing various aspects of unequal treatment compared to other staff at the studio doing much the same jobs.

This isn’t an especially stand-out case; it’s interesting primarily because it brings together three aspects that are emerging as common themes in unionisation drives across the industry, and which are thus deserving of attention, no matter which side of the unionisation debate you happen to fall on.

Firstly, the staff pushing to unionise at Bioware are QA specialists — something that we’ve seen in a number of other cases — and they’ve adopted a recently popular strategy of attempting to unionise just their immediate colleagues, rather than the studio as a whole.

This is a smart strategy, because the reasons that QA departments are most likely to wish to unionise are the same reasons why it’s very hard for them to get colleagues in other departments to vote for the union proposals. QA is, bluntly, treated very badly in a lot of companies. Despite long-term QA staff being highly skilled and specialised, the tendency to act as if they’re all teenagers doing summer jobs — or worse, for other departments to respond to QA’s bug reporting with hostility and treat the department as a kind of ‘enemy within’ — is deeply ingrained in a lot of companies.

The technical skillset and training required for effective QA staff has increased significantly in recent years but, even against that backdrop, QA departments have often been the first to be targeted with cost-cutting measures that reduce headcount, remove job security, and casualise the workforce.

The incentives for QA staff to unionise are obvious; meanwhile, the culture of looking down on QA departments — which shamefully is true of many regular development staff, not just management — explains why it’s been so hard for them to do so when unionisation efforts demanded a ballot of the whole company, not just their own department. The divide-and-conquer strategy so often employed by companies whose workers are trying to unionise is pretty easy to implement when the staff are already divided to begin with.

Secondly, the staff at Bioware who are trying to unionise don’t actually work for Bioware — they work for a sub-contractor called Keywords, which supplies a number of the studio’s QA staff. This is another way in which QA departments and their staff have been effectively downgraded by some companies. Moving to an outsourcing model gives the studio effectively full-time, long-term staff who work there just the same as everyone else, but who technically work for another company and thus don’t have to get the same treatment in terms of pay, benefits, or job security as everyone else.

Some countries have laws which force companies to give direct, permanent employment to any such “sub-contracted” staff after a certain number of years, but most don’t, which creates some pretty perverse incentives for employers to keep even valued, long-serving staff at a legal arm’s length.

This, too, is a theme that’s not uncommon in recent unionisation efforts. Many of them seem to be a direct response to companies abusing contract worker definitions, or at the very least stretching them right up to their breaking point. The question of the treatment of contract workers is a key motivation for a lot of labour organisations at present — and one that goes well beyond QA staff, with this kind of arrangement becoming increasingly normalised in other areas of the industry as well.

Finally, of course, there’s the looming shadow of the pandemic. The casualisation of labour in QA departments and the increasing use of outsourcing to erode pay and conditions for indirectly hired workers may be a tinder pile, but the spark that’s setting it ablaze in many companies is the demand for staff to stop working remotely and return to offices.

Even if widespread unionisation never takes off, however, we can hope that the fear of it will push companies to have some long-overdue conversations about staff well-being and equitable treatment

These demands are often entirely unilateral and come despite many staff still having concerns about the pandemic situation — not to mention the clear benefits which remote work offers in terms of work-life balance and general quality of life. It’s hardly surprising that this would be a sore point; the past two years have been a very rapid learning process for both individuals and organisations, but the outcome, after the initial steep learning curve, was that a lot of them developed effective and highly productive ways of working remotely, and workers have been enjoying the benefits of that process.

Now some companies are asking workers to throw away all that learning and development, and give up the significantly better working lives which they enabled, generally with no offer of any compensation or compromise for the loss of those benefits. This is understandably intolerable, especially to workers who were already feeling undervalued or ill-treated.

Moreover, this process has only emphasised the inequality many workers were already feeling; at a lot of companies, more senior staff have been in a position to bargain over these demands, winning the right to work remotely at will or at least for a certain portion of each week or month, while contract staff have generally simply been presented with the return-to-office demand as a fait accompli — like it or lump it.

A unionisation push was always an inevitability, not just in the games industry but in a wide swathe of what’s sometimes termed the “knowledge economy” — technology, technology-centric media, and creative industries, that were founded on the idealistic notion that their workers were so skilled and in-demand that unionisation would never be needed at all, and now find themselves rotting from the bottom up as areas of labour that were comfortable and secure only a decade or two ago find themselves casualised, outsourced, sub-contracted, and precarious.

This isn’t even the result of a glut of skilled workers; often this is happening in industries which, out the other side of the mouths, do nothing but bemoan the lack of the skilled and qualified workers they need to thrive.

For now, however, the balance of risk falls heavily on the side of unionised staff — who can face significant retaliation from employers, despite supposed legal protections for labour organising efforts — but there’s a tipping point to these things, where unionised labour becomes the norm and non-unionised workplaces start running into major barriers, and it’s probably not as far down the path as many people imagine.

Even if widespread unionisation never takes off, however, we can hope that the fear of it will push companies to have some long-overdue conversations about staff well-being and equitable treatment. If employers try to head off unionisation attempts not by spreading misinformation or sowing divisions, but by earnestly working to improve conditions for all of their staff, we can chalk that up as a win for everyone.

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