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Members of Activision’s Raven Software QA team form a union

Warmly dressed and mostly masked workers hold protest signs.
Enlarge / Striking employees demand the reinstatement of Raven Software QA contractors who were let go in December.

The members of Activision Blizzard subsidiary Raven Software’s quality assurance department are seeking voluntary recognition of their union, a first for workers at a major American video game publisher.

The newly formed Game Workers Alliance union is asking Activision to recognize its right to represent the 34 QA testers at the studio, which works primarily on the Call of Duty series. The union has formed with the help of the Communication Workers of America—which has for years been publicly working to organize the game industry through its Campaign to Organize Digital Employees (CODE)—and A Better ABK Workers Alliance, which is working to organize the much broader group of over 9,500 Activision employees.

(Ars Technica writers are members of the NewsGuild of New York, a subsidiary of the CWA.)

A representative for the CWA confirmed that 78 percent of the Raven Software QA unit has expressed support for the union, well above the majority threshold needed for formal representation. If Activision does not voluntarily recognize the union in the coming days, the group plans to go forward with a formal National Labor Relations Board election to force recognition. Once the union is recognized, Activision would be required to negotiate with members over certain legally defined issues.

In a Twitter thread announcing the union, the Game Workers Alliance said it is seeking more sustainable and realistic development timelines with less “crunch time,” better communication and transparency from management, improved compensation and career development opportunities, and more opportunities for “empowering underrepresented voices.”

“Quality Assurance Testers are consistently undervalued, undercompensated, and overworked,” the Game Workers Alliance wrote on Twitter. “We, the Quality Assurance Team at Raven Software, are passionate about creating a work environment in which our profession is recognized for its integral role in the success of game development.”

A long time coming

The announcement of the union formalizes a labor uprising at Raven Software that started last month when many Raven employees walked off the job to protest the treatment of 12 contract testers who were unceremoniously laid off. That walkout quickly evolved into an open-ended strike that included 20 Raven QA workers and 60 total employees from among the rest of Raven’s over 300 employees and Activision Blizzard’s over 9,500 workers.

In recent weeks, the number of striking Activision Blizzard employees has dwindled to 20, a CWA spokesperson told Ars Technica. The CWA is not providing strike assistance to those employees, the spokesperson said, instead pointing to an independent strike fund that has been set up to support strikers.

The 12 laid-off Raven testers, whose contracts officially end on January 28, are among those supporting the union effort, according to The Washington Post. Activision Blizzard had ignored departmental management urging the company not to go through with those layoffs, according to Raven testers who talked to the Post.

Blizzard employees participating in a walkout to protest the company's Hong Kong protest policies in 2019.
Enlarge / Blizzard employees participating in a walkout to protest the company’s Hong Kong protest policies in 2019.

A Better ABK has also organized two separate walkouts at the company in recent months. Those were set up to protest widespread allegations of sexual assault and discrimination that have roiled the company in the months since a California agency lawsuit against the publisher became public. In 2019, the company also faced a brief employee walkout over its treatment of a pro Hearthstone player who publicly expressed support for Hong Kong.

While Microsoft recently announced plans to purchase Activision for a record $68.7 billion, Raven QA member Erin Hall told The New York Times that the timing of the union announcement was coincidental. In an interview with The Washington Post, Xbox Gaming CEO Phil Spencer said he “[doesn’t] have a lot of personal experience with unions” but that “we’ll be having conversations about what empowers them to do their best work, which as you can imagine in a creative industry is the most important thing for us.”

In a statement, the CWA said Activision has “used surveillance and intimidation tactics, including hiring notorious union busters, to silence workers” instead of collaborating with them. In a letter sent to Activision employees shortly after the strike started, Activision executive Brian Bulatao urged employees to “consider the consequences of your signature on the binding legal document presented to you by CWA” and said that “active, transparent dialogue between leaders and employees” was a “better path” than going through a drawn-out collective bargaining process.

Last month, the management of independent game studio Vodeo Games formally recognized a worker union that has the support of 100 percent of unit employees.

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