Activision Blizzard had until 6PM ET on January 25th to voluntarily recognize Game Workers Alliance, a group of Raven Software employees that recently gathered the votes to unionize, backed by Communications Workers of America. That deadline passed without recognition from Activision Blizzard, and Raven employees will now move forward with plans to file for a union election through the National Labor Relations Board.
"At Activision Blizzard, we deeply respect the rights of all employees to make their own decisions about whether or not to join a union," an Activision Blizzard spokesperson said. "We carefully reviewed and considered the CWA initial request last week and tried to find a mutually acceptable solution with the CWA that would have led to an expedited election process. Unfortunately, the parties could not reach an agreement."
In a series of tweets, GWA confirmed its plans to file with the NLRB.
"This was an opportunity for Activision Blizzard to show a real commitment setting new and improved standards for workers," one tweet read. "Instead, Activision Blizzard has chosen to make a rushed restructuring announcement to try and hinder our right to organize."
Events have been unfolding quickly here, so let's break it down by day:
January 21st: More than 30 quality assurance testers at Raven Software announced they'd gathered enough signatures to unionize, a move that would make Game Workers Alliance the first union at a large-scale North American video game studio. Raven is owned by Activision Blizzard and focuses on supporting Call of Duty: Warzone, so this is about as AAA as it gets. Union signatories asked Activision Blizzard leadership to voluntarily recognize GWA by January 25th.
January 22nd: Raven workers ended a weekslong strike against Activision Blizzard, awaiting union recognition from executives. The strike began on December 6th, in response to layoffs of 12 QA testers at Raven — all of whom had signed their names to the unionization effort, according to The Washington Post.
January 24th: Raven head Brian Raffel sent an email to employees announcing "organizational change" that would dissolve QA as a team and transfer those workers to various departments across the studio. This is known as "embedding" and it's not uncommon at AAA studios. Raffel said embedding was the next logical step in a process that began "several months ago."
"As we look ahead at the ongoing expansion of Call of Duty: Warzone, it’s more important than ever that we foster tighter integration and coordination across the studio – embedding will allow for this," Raffel wrote.
The timing of the announcement and the focus on QA testers has concerned activist groups, union signatories at Raven and Activision Blizzard employees who have been fighting for cultural change at the studio since last year. Activision Blizzard is the subject of a lawsuit and multiple investigations into allegations of systemic gender discrimination and sexual harassment, and employees have walked out multiple times, calling for longstanding CEO Bobby Kotick to resign.
It's unclear how the restructuring at Raven will impact the union going forward, but the worry is that this move will impede members' ability to coordinate with each other. CWA said on Twitter that the announcement was "nothing more than a tactic to thwart Raven QA workers who are exercising their right to organize."
The CWA thread continued, "When Management uses meaningless buzzwords like ‘alignment,' ‘synergy,’ and ‘reorganization,’ they are sending a message to workers: ‘we make all the decisions, we have all the power.’"
An Activision Publishing spokesperson provided the following response to questions about the timing of the reorganization:
“This is the next step in a process that has been carefully considered and in the works for some time, and this structure brings Raven into alignment with the best practices of other prominent Activision studios. It is also a milestone in our broader plan to integrate QA more into the development process as our teams strive to deliver best in class coordination in real-time, live service operations.”
All of which brings us to today. Activision Blizzard employees have a supermajority of votes in favor of unionizing, and they're bringing their case to the NLRB. This can be a protracted process, and the longer it takes, the more leverage Activision Blizzard leadership will have.
Cornell professor of labor and employment law Risa Lieberwitz told The Washington Post that the structural changes shouldn't interrupt the unionization process, but added that the timing "raises the question of whether [Activision Blizzard] are retaliating against the QA employees because of their union activities."
The full statement from an Activision Blizzard spokesperson about the failed unionization talks with CWA follows:
At Activision Blizzard, we deeply respect the rights of all employees to make their own decisions about whether or not to join a union. We carefully reviewed and considered the CWA initial request last week and tried to find a mutually acceptable solution with the CWA that would have led to an expedited election process. Unfortunately, the parties could not reach an agreement.
We expect that the union will be moving forward with the filing of a petition to the NLRB for an election. If filed, the company will respond formally to that petition promptly. The most important thing to the company is that each eligible employee has the opportunity to have their voice heard and their individual vote counted, and we think all employees at Raven should have a say in this decision.
Across the company, we believe that a direct relationship between managers and team members allows us to quickly respond and deliver the strongest results and opportunities for employees. As a result of these direct relationships, we’ve made a number of changes over the past couple years including raising minimum compensation for Raven QA employees by 41%, extending paid time off, expanding access to medical benefits for employees and their significant others, and transitioning more than 60% of temporary Raven QA staff into full-time employees. We look forward to continuing a direct dialogue with our team and working together to make our workplace better.
Microsoft last week announced plans to acquire Activision Blizzard for $69 billion, a deal that's poised to change the video game landscape completely. One day after that news dropped, Activision said in an SEC filing that there were no unionization efforts underway at the studio, though it had previously warned Raven employees to "consider the consequences” of signing union cards.