Activision Blizzard and Raven Software QA workers are looking to define employees eligible for Game Workers Alliance, the union group formed in January with the assistance of Communication Workers of America (CWA). The National Labor Relations Board hearing began Wednesday and continued into Thursday. Union representatives have raised concerns about whether Activision Blizzard’s various responses to employees’ unionization efforts constitute union-busting.
The hearing was forced in late January after Activision Blizzard denied Game Workers Alliance’s request for voluntary recognition of the union. The purpose of the hearing is to define which employees can be included in the unit, as well as determine who can vote for or against the union. From the hearing, Activision Blizzard and Game Workers Alliance will also set a date for the vote.
One of the complicated issues outlined during the hearing concerns Activision Blizzard’s reorganization of its QA staff following the announcement of Game Workers Alliance. That reorganization “embeds” the QA team into different teams across the company, like art, design, engineering, and audio, Activision Blizzard said in January. Though embedded QA is considered a positive adjustment for a video game studio, since its aim is to better include QA workers in the development process, the timing of Activision Blizzard’s reorganization raised questions among staff regarding whether their union was being intentionally split up. In January, CWA organizing director Tom Smith called the move “nothing more than a tactic to thwart Raven QA workers who are exercising their right to organize.”
The NLRB hearing will determine whether this reorganization reclassifies QA workers, therefore redefining the initial terms of eligible employees for the union. The Game Workers Alliance union is petitioning to include only QA testers and leads at Raven Software. An Activision Blizzard spokesperson said in January that “all employees at Raven should have a say in this decision,” meaning it wants all Raven employees to vote. For Game Workers Unite to officially be labeled a union, a majority vote must be in favor.
Since Wednesday, a number of executive-level employees testified, including studio head Brian Raffel and senior directors Bill Fine and David Pellas. Both CWA and Activision Blizzard have spent a large portion of the time talking about worker classification, office layouts, and job descriptions.
In a statement sent to press following the first day of the hearing, a CWA spokesperson said Activision Blizzard “presented an exhaustive and dishonest case around Raven QA workers’ job descriptions and day-to-day workflow in order to prevent them from moving forward with their union election.” A representative from the Game Workers Alliance called the process “demoralizing.” They said management held a meeting last week “to thwart [...] organization efforts.” According to a report from the Washington Post, Pellas told staff at that time that a union “could limit the amount of overtime worked, which might affect the quality of a game upon launch.”
“The company has launched an anti-union campaign, spending thousands of dollars on notorious union-busting consultants,” CWA organizing director Smith said Wednesday. “The anti-union playbook is built around the tactics of abuse: gaslighting, manipulation, and creating intentionally stressful workplace dynamics to demoralize union supporters. It comes from a place of fear — fear of workers having an independent voice, backed by a union contract.”
An Activision Blizzard representative told Polygon that “it is clear [the union does] not understand the studio’s business needs, day-to-day operations, nor the gaming industry in general.” The full statement is as follows:
Despite the union’s heated rhetoric about this week’s hearing, it is clear they do not understand the studio’s business needs, day-to-day operations, nor the gaming industry in general. We remain focused on the facts and in making sure our employees have access to a full range of information about this election and how it could impact them and our entire studio. This is an important decision that will affect everyone at Raven, and we believe that every eligible employee deserves to have their vote counted. We deeply respect the right of all employees to make their own decisions about whether or not to join a union. We look forward to continuing a direct dialogue with employees about this important matter.
While the CWA and its lawyers are backing Game Workers Alliance in the NLRB hearing, Activision Blizzard has hired international law firm Reed Smith. The lawyers present at the hearing said on their Reed Smith profiles that they’ve, collectively, represented major companies across industries in discrimination and sexual harassment claims, wage disputes, and other labor violation cases. On its website, Reed Smith boasts its experience in “developing and sustaining robust union avoidance programs or support on an anti-union campaign.” In documents on that website, Reed Smith provides tips on spotting “early signs of a union-organizing attempt,” and then beginning a “counter-attack.”
The NLRB hearing is ongoing through Thursday, and no election date has yet been set. Activision Blizzard is also still facing allegations of systemic sexual harassment and discrimination as outlined in a California Department of Fair Employment and Housing lawsuit. In August, Activision Blizzard QA workers spoke out about demanding work, low pay, and intense crunch. Workers across the company have walked out in the wake of the discrimination allegations and multiple lawsuits and investigations are ongoing. One of the lawsuits, filed by the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, was settled for $18 million earlier this year.
Meanwhile, Microsoft is preparing to acquire Activision Blizzard, a $68.7 billion deal that will be reviewed by government regulators. CEO Bobby Kotick, who has faced calls for resignation from Activision Blizzard workers and the press (including this outlet), will continue to lead the company, at least until the Microsoft deal is finalized.