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Workers at Microsoft-owned ZeniMax Media voted ‘yes’ to unionize 300 QA staff positions

Roughly 300 QA workers are included in the union

Fallout 76 teaser - computer desk Image: Bethesda Game Studios/Bethesda Softworks
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.

A supermajority of workers at Microsoft’s ZeniMax Media voted to join the ZeniMax Workers United union, Communications Workers of America announced Tuesday. Roughly 300 quality assurance workers have been voting in an election since early December, either through union authorization cards or an online portal. Microsoft, per its labor neutrality deal with CWA, recognized the union.

“The core of ZeniMax Workers United is solidarity,” ZeniMax associate QA tester Ilyasah Ellison told Polygon. “Where we are different in projects, locations, and experiences, we make up for it tenfold through our passion, drive, and hunger for changing our reality.”

The ZeniMax union vote ended on Dec. 31, CWA said in a news release, with ZeniMax QA workers organizing for months ahead of the original announcement. For Microsoft to recognize the union, half (plus one) of the 300 ZeniMax QA workers had to vote in favor. A supermajority means a larger group voted yes. The vote happened outside of the National Labor Relations Board’s purview because of Microsoft’s neutrality agreement signed in June. Union elections are typically held through the NLRB.

Workers will soon begin contract negotiations with Microsoft.

“In light of the results of the recent unionization vote, we recognize the Communications Workers of America (CWA) as the bargaining representative for the Quality Assurance employees at ZeniMax,” a Microsoft spokesperson said in a statement. “We look forward to engaging in good faith negotiations as we work towards a collective bargaining agreement.”

ZeniMax Media is a subsidiary of Microsoft that was acquired in a $7.5 billion deal in 2020. It includes studios like Bethesda, id Software, and ZeniMax Online — makers of games like Starfield, The Elder Scrolls Online, and Doom. QA workers included in the union are located in offices in Maryland and Texas, a CWA spokesperson said.

“Raven Software was the first union at a triple-A company, and we would be Microsoft’s first game union,” Ellison said. “And I’m sure we won’t be the last, by any means. It’s a marker in history, and to be within it, to have assisted with it, and being a part of it is crazy — in a good way.”

QA workers are essential to the video game industry, but they’re often considered the most vulnerable of its workers due to low pay and intense crunch. QA workers “push the limits of game functionality,” Ellison said — the job means trying to predict all the millions of ways a player could approach the game, and to then make sure that player doesn’t break it.

It’s no surprise that this group of workers is leading the video game industry’s union push. ZeniMax QA workers have reportedly faced the same issues as other games industry QA teams; a Kotaku report from June detailed QA workers’ experience on Fallout 76 — long hours, low pay, and poor working conditions.

“People take the amount of work and effort we put into testing games for granted,” Ellison said. “You’re working and doing repetitive tasks. Sometimes staying long hours, and not necessarily getting the pay you feel you deserve for the work you put into the game, as opposed to other departments.”

ZeniMax QA workers are looking to secure fair treatment and wages, opportunities for advancements, accountability and transparency, and “a voice in decision making around scheduling [and] workload,” among other things, as written by ZeniMax Workers United on Twitter. Ellison added that it can be hard for QA workers to move up in the company, and the union intends to fight for more transparency into that process, and to ensure there are no biases impacting those decisions.

Risa Lieberwitz, professor of Labor Law and Employment Law at Cornell’s School of Industrial Labor and Relations and academic director for IRL’s The Worker Institute, told Polygon that it’s not uncommon to see unionization efforts among workers with the most insecure jobs and difficult working conditions. She pointed to the efforts of graduate student employees and Starbucks workers in similar situations.

However, she emphasized that unionization can benefit all working people: “Certainly you can imagine that those who are in the most difficult working conditions have the most immediate interest in unionization to take care of very, very difficult working conditions that they’re facing,” Lieberwitz said. “But I think that what is very important as well, is to recognize that everybody who is working is facing as a shared concern around job security and health and safety issues.”

Microsoft promised neutrality in June as part of a labor neutrality agreement. That’s basically a contract that says Microsoft can’t deter union efforts, and it must stay “neutral” in all interactions. After Microsoft signed the agreement, CWA expressed support for Microsoft’s acquisition of Activision Blizzard. At the time, Microsoft president Brad Smith denied that it was a play to ease the $68.7 billion deal through the Federal Trade Commission’s antitrust regulators, though others have described it as such. The neutrality agreement extends to all Microsoft employees, as well as Activision Blizzard employees who will come over should the deal go through. These sorts of agreements are not common, Lieberwitz said, due to the United States’ ongoing history of hostility toward unionization, as well as weak labor laws to protect workers’ rights.

Microsoft’s neutrality play is in stark contrast to Activision Blizzard’s response to unionization within its company; the latter has tried to fight unionization efforts every step of the way, arguing that all workers at a particular studio should vote on the union. Late last year, Activision Blizzard-owned Proletariat studio announced its intention to unionize with CWA. The group of 57 workers across jobs would be the third union at Activision Blizzard.

The industry’s momentum toward unionization is continuing to grow heading into 2023 — and ZeniMax Workers United is now the largest of all gaming studio unions in North America. “The courageous collective organizing efforts by workers are inspiring to other workers in the gaming and tech industry,” Lieberwitz said. “And inspiration is not just within a company or industry. People are affected broadly by these kinds of unionization efforts.”

Update (Jan. 3, 2023): On Jan. 3, CWA announced that ZeniMax QA workers voted in favor of unionization. Microsoft recognized the vote, and the group will move on to contract negotiations. This story has been updated to reflect this information.

Update 2 (Jan. 3, 2023): This story has been updated to include a statement from Microsoft.