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Tech is notoriously anti-union. Microsoft is taking a different approach — neutrality

Microsoft announced Monday that it’s entering a ‘labor neutrality agreement’ with CWA

Xbox Series X controller Photo: Fabian Sommer/picture alliance via Getty Images
Nicole Carpenter is a senior reporter specializing in investigative features about labor issues in the game industry, as well as the business and culture of games.

The technology industry has long been anti-union — not because workers aren’t interested in organizing, but because big companies have always been interested in spending money to shut unions down.

Amazon, Google, and Apple have all been accused of union-busting within the past year alone, allegedly spending lots of money dissuading workers from organizing. This hostility extends to the video game industry, too. Both Activision Blizzard and Nintendo had National Labor Relations Board charges filed against them in 2022, with both companies alleged to have engaged in retaliation against organizing workers, among other claims.

Microsoft, currently looking to the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) for approval on a $68.7 purchase of Activision Blizzard, appears to be taking a different approach: neutrality. On Monday, Microsoft and the Communication Workers of America (CWA) jointly announced that they’ve entered into what’s called a labor neutrality agreement, which is basically a contract in which Microsoft agrees in writing that it won’t deter union efforts. Should the Activision Blizzard deal go through, the agreement will go into effect 60 days after the acquisition closes. It’s building off a promise Microsoft made last week — that it won’t interfere Raven Software’s new union.

First, Microsoft will take a neutral approach when employees covered by the agreement express interest in joining a union. Second, covered employees will be able to easily exercise their right to communicate with other employees and union representatives about union membership in a way that encourages information sharing and avoids business disruptions. Third, employees will have access to an innovative technology-supported and streamlined process for choosing whether to join a union. Fourth, employees can maintain confidentiality and privacy of that choice if they wish. Fifth, if a disagreement arises between the CWA and Microsoft under the agreement, the two organizations will work together promptly to reach an agreement and will turn to an expedited arbitration process if they cannot. The agreement does not impact the Activision workforce before the close of the transaction.

Activision Blizzard workers at Raven Software have been organizing since 2021, following the publicization of alleged instances of gender discrimination and sexism at the publisher. Raven Software QA workers went on strike in December after the company denied new contracts for several members of the QA team. In the months that followed, Activision Blizzard seemingly fought the union push every step of the way, leading into the May 2022 union vote, where QA workers on Call of Duty: Warzone won the right to form a union nineteen votes to three.

Following the Raven Software QA vote, however, Activision Blizzard CEO Bobby Kotick did promise to recognize the union, but that’s something that the company is legally obligated to do under federal law. Microsoft’s promise — now in writing — would effectively neuter Activision Blizzard’s hostility. Microsoft president Brad Smith told The Washington Post that neither Activision Blizzard nor Kotick were involved in the agreement, not that it would matter once the merger goes through and the neutrality agreement goes into effect.

“This agreement provides a pathway for Activision Blizzard workers to exercise their democratic rights to organize and collectively bargain after the close of the Microsoft acquisition and establishes a high road framework for employers in the games industry,” CWA president Chris Shelton said in a news release. “Microsoft’s binding commitments will give employees a seat at the table and ensure that the acquisition of Activision Blizzard benefits the company’s workers and the broader video game labor market.”

Smith denied that the CWA agreement was an attempt to get Microsoft’s Activision Blizzard merger through the FTC’s antitrust regulators, according to the Post.

Regardless of Microsoft’s intention, the company’s shift toward neutrality over hostility is an important signal for both the technology and video game industries. At the very least, it will make the pathway to unionization a bit easier for Activision Blizzard workers under Microsoft, and could be used to help Microsoft workers reach their own deals.

Union sentiments are shifting in North America across many workforces. Workers want a say in how they’re compensated and treated at their jobs. The past few years have been monumental in building up to this moment. Before 2021, there weren’t any video game development unions in North America. There are three now — at Beast Breaker developer Vodeo Games, which voluntarily recognized Vodeo Workers United in December and Raven Software’s QA workers with Game Workers Alliance, both with CODE-CWA, and Dragon Age: Dread Wolf QA contractors at Keywords Studios with United Food and Commercial Workers Canada Union, Local No. 401.

There is still a lot of work to be done in unionizing the video game industry, but workers — specifically, the most vulnerable workers at the bottom of the wage scale — are organizing. And they’re starting to win moral victories as well as victories on paper.