On Feb. 15, just days after massive layoffs at Activision Blizzard, the AFL-CIO issued a powerful public statement of support to game developers in the United States. Also known as the American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations, the AFL-CIO represents more than 12 million workers in 50 different labor unions, including a unit here within Vox Media. Its message, published in an open letter at Kotaku, was both simple and profound.
“This is a moment for change,” wrote secretary-treasurer Liz Shuler. “It won’t come from CEOs. It won’t come from corporate boards. And, it won’t come from any one person.”
“You have the power,” she continued, “to demand a stake in your industry and a say in your economic future. What’s more, you have millions of brothers and sisters across the country standing with you.”
Polygon reached out to Shuler by email to learn more about the AFL-CIO’s position on unionizing the games industry, and about what it feels is its role in supporting a group of workers that feels increasingly pushed to the brink. We’ve added links to provide additional information and context where needed.
Polygon: Why is now the right time for the AFL-CIO to reach out to workers in the video game industry?
Liz Shuler: We’re living through an incredible moment of collective action right now. Whether it’s teachers striking for better school funding, federal workers marching against the shutdown, or journalists organizing their newsrooms, working people are recognizing unacceptable disparities in our economy and fighting for what we deserve.
I’ve been thrilled to see that same energy building in the games industry. Game Workers Unite is showing exactly how workers build power — by organizing on the ground, person-by-person.
I wanted to make clear that, if you’re looking to make changes in your workplace, a union is the single best tool you have for doing that — they’re different in each industry, and members get to decide how to shape them. And if you decide that’s the right choice for you and your co-workers, we’re going to have your back.
The games industry is far from an emerging market. Why do you think it’s taken so long for them to even consider organizing?
Executives know that when workers join together, those employees will have exponentially more leverage. So, they try their best to spread fear and make unions out to be the bad guys. And when talented employees are deeply and personally invested in their work, as developers are, there’s even more pressure to “be a team player” and fall in line.
But when you continue to face mistreatment and injustice at work, there comes a point when you realize that you have to stand up with your colleagues for your own best interests. I think we’re seeing that happen right now.
Your statement goes to great lengths to call out the prominence and success of workers in the industry. But they clearly feel isolated and like they’re breaking new ground. What other industries should these workers look to for models of how to successfully organize on their own behalf?
Developers don’t have to look too far away. It’s pretty incredible that games’ voice actors have union contracts through SAG-AFTRA, yet the folks building those games don’t enjoy the same protections. There’s a strong history of unionism in the entertainment industry, and it’s about time the fastest-growing part of that industry gains the rights and dignities that come with a union card.
Video games are produced by international teams that are non-centralized. Their situation feels unique. What strategies can these workers use to organize and how might they differ from other similar efforts?
It’s certainly not a unique challenge. Flight attendants and airline pilots work in and travel to every corner of the globe. Other entertainment fields, by their nature, create and distribute content around the world. Auto manufacturers’ production chains cross international borders multiple times. Geography hasn’t stopped all of those industries from building strong unions.
The process for negotiating a contract is democratic and can take into account all sorts of specific situations. Digital journalists have made some exciting breakthroughs using new technology, tools and organizing strategies, and I suspect developers are in a great position to do the same. The constant is the fact that, by joining together, you can have more leverage in making the improvements you need in your workplace.
How would a video games industry union look like traditional unions? How would it be different?
The truth is that every union is different. Every industry and every workplace has their own challenges, and unions are a flexible tool for tackling those challenges. Members get to decide for themselves what their union looks like and what they want to negotiate for. There’s one key thing they all share: Building strength and increasing leverage by joining together.
Does a single monolithic union make sense for video game development, which can often contain dozens of discrete roles focused on unique skills and job responsibilities? Are there analogs to this in other industries?
That’s an age-old question in the labor movement. Should we organize based on craft? Plenty of unions are built on that philosophy, including my own, the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers. Others, like the United Auto Workers, organize by industry. Both are valid approaches. Developers have a unique set of skills and their own identity, so part of this process will involve figuring out which approach makes sense for them.
It feels like there’s a lot of anger right now, directed at the larger companies, among the workers and the fans of the work they produce. What would you tell people in the industry to channel that energy into productive next steps?
That kind of anger, and the sort of injustices we see in this industry, are precisely the reason unions formed in the first place. History certainly seems to be repeating itself.
The first step is simple: Talk! Don’t just simmer in silence. Have conversations with your colleagues. Talk about the challenges you’ve faced and what you would like to see change at your job. Out of those conversations, you’ll find a group of people ready to fight for that change.