Pencil in another win for collective bargaining efforts in the video game industry: On Monday, Microsoft and the Communications Workers of America signed a labor neutrality agreement, an agreement that will allow employees to explore their right to associate freely and without fear of retaliation. The agreement will take effect 60 days after Microsoft’s acquisition of Activision Blizzard.
It’s an unprecedented deal for the gaming industry, which has been notoriously hostile to workers’ collectives since its inception. Nowhere has this been more evident than with Activision Blizzard, where employees have struggled for months to unite amid the company’s hiring. union breaking companies and the use of anti-worker rhetoric. The first union formed under the umbrella of the company are employees of Duty developer Raven Software – a feat they managed to push through with a small QA unit and 19 “yes” votes.
Under the neutrality agreement, employees can talk to their colleagues about union membership and keep it confidential. “If a disagreement arises between the CWA and Microsoft under the agreement, the two organizations will immediately work together to reach an agreement and will proceed to expedited arbitration if they are unable to do so,” the CWA said in its announcement.
That agreement, CWA president Chris Shelton said in a statement, “provides an avenue for Activision Blizzard employees to exercise their democratic rights to organize and bargain collectively” once the Microsoft acquisition is completed. In other words, Shelton continued, employees are now sitting at the table.
The CWA’s caution over the impending merger has been months in the making. In March it is urged the FTC to, along with 14 other organizations, to examine the deal “closely” before closing: “The potential Microsoft acquisition threatens to further undermine workers’ rights and stifle wages.” The neutrality agreement allays those concerns. Microsoft president Brad Smith said in a statement that the pending acquisition is the company’s “first chance” to enforce the guidelines it has already established when it comes to labor organizations.
Microsoft is open to employees who join a union. Xbox head Phil Spencer told staff to company would recognize Raven’s union once the merger is complete lifts the reticence Activision Blizzard has repeatedly shown in response to the workers’ efforts. On top of accusations of break unionthe National Labor Relations Board said in May found merit for allegations that the company threatened employees who spoke about working conditions. Activision Blizzard voluntarily refused to recognize Raven’s union and forced workers to legally obtain their rights through elections.
On May 23, a group of quality assurance developers made history after winning that vote by forming the first AAA union at one of the largest game companies in the world. Activision Blizzard’s response was a plea: “We believe that an important decision that will affect the entire Raven Software studio of approximately 350 people should not be made by 19 Raven employees,” spokesperson Kelvin Liu told WIRED.
But Activision Blizzard can no longer continue that battle. CEO Bobby Kotick sent an email to employees June 10th with news that the company will negotiate with Communications Workers of America and the 27 QA employees in the unit: “We will meet CWA leaders at the negotiating table and work towards an agreement that will support the success of all our employees, furthering our commitment strengthened to create the best, most welcoming and inclusive workplace in the industry, and enhances our ability to deliver world-class games for our players.”
Microsoft’s willingness to partner with the CWA bodes well for future efforts to organize the company, but the road to better working conditions is still a long one. The conclusion of a contract is a lengthy and intensive process that requires compromises and repeated negotiations on behalf of both parties. Kotick claims that negotiations will be conducted in good faith, but at this point the company has a legal obligation to come to the table. He has no choice.
Still, Kotick’s promise is a “positive step toward good labor relations at Activision,” CWA secretary-treasurer Sara Steffens told WIRED. †[We] hope,” she says, “[Kotick’s announcement] is the first of many steps toward full collaboration between Activision Blizzard leadership and employees to positively shape the future of Activision through a strong union contract.”