Activision Blizzard announced Friday it was entering bargaining negotiations with a group of Raven Software quality assurance testers. Those testers have spent months demanding recognition of their union, the Game Workers Alliance, which is supported by the CWA.
The labor neutrality agreement “means that we respect the right of our employees to make informed decisions on their own,” said Microsoft president Brad Smith in an interview with The Washington Post. “It means that we don’t try to put a thumb on the scale to influence or pressure them. We give people the opportunity to exercise their right to choose by voting … it’s something that’s respectful of everyone, more amicable and avoids business disruption.”
The agreement puts into writing what Microsoft has stated in the past. In March, Microsoft told The Post it wouldn’t stand in the way if Activision Blizzard recognized a union. In May, Xbox head Phil Spencer told employees in an internal all-hands that he would recognize Raven Software’s newly formed union, according to a Kotaku report. Unlike those previous statements, this agreement is legally binding, according to the CWA and Microsoft.
“[The agreement] covers the large majority of workers at Activision Blizzard,” Smith said. “There are certain categories that are excluded under the National Labor Relations Act — managers, people who have confidential positions, that kind of thing. But really broadly speaking, it applies to the employees of Activision Blizzard as a whole.”
The deal between Microsoft and the CWA says employees should easily exercise their right to communicate with other employees and other union representatives about organizing, have a streamlined process for choosing to join a union and keep their decision private if they wish. Finally, the agreement states that if the CWA and Microsoft disagree, they will work together to reach consensus and failing that, turn to an arbitration process.
“The arbitration process will ensure that the rights that employees have under the National Labor Relations Act is upheld, so we’re not trying to go off and do something that is separate from the rights that people have,” Smith said. “We then have a third party that can make a decision and will abide by it.”
If other Microsoft employees end up unionizing, the CWA said it intends on using this agreement to help advocate for those employees, too.
“We will talk about how we go about organizing Microsoft employees if that happens,” CWA President Christopher Shelton said. “And I’m not saying that it’s not happening as we speak, but we don’t announce organizing projects.”
Microsoft’s agreement comes a week after it announced a new strategy for dealing with unions. The company posted new “principles for employee organizing” on June 2, which stated, “we recognize that there many be times when some employees in some countries may wish to form or join a union.”
Shelton said the discussions started after Microsoft announced in January it would buy Activision Blizzard for a historic $68.7 billion, a move which shocked organizing workers. The deal is slated to close by June 2023.
“We looked at it and said, ‘Employees have to have a voice, or they’ll get run over by these big companies deciding that they’ll come together,’” Shelton said. “We came up with this agreement, and we’ve been working on it for quite a while now. It hasn’t been all that easy. But it hasn’t been all that hard either, because Microsoft really meant what they said in their principles, and I believe that.”
Smith said Activision Blizzard CEO Bobby Kotick and his company were not consulted on the terms of the agreement, although the company was aware that Microsoft and the CWA were holding discussions.
“We have to be extremely careful under the law to avoid what’s called gun jumping,” Smith said, referring to unlawful activities from a company still awaiting regulatory approval. “We were not required to [talk to Activision Blizzard] under the merger agreement, and we did not seek their approval to enter into the agreement.”
Regarding his company’s decision to engage with the CWA and the union at Raven, Activision Blizzard CEO Bobby Kotick said in a statement to The Post: “We decided to take this important step forward with our 27 represented employees and CWA to explore their ideas and insights for how we might better serve our employees, players and other stakeholders. We look forward to collaborating with CWA as we create the industry’s most welcoming, inclusive workplace.”
Video game companies in North America never successfully unionized until last December, when a union at indie developer Vodeo Games was recognized by management. It was followed by Raven Software winning a union election May 23. On June 6, 16 quality assurance testers at Keywords Studios, which is working on “Dragon Age: Dreadwolf” for the Electronic Arts-owned BioWare, formed Canada’s first video game union. Electronic Arts spokesperson Lacey Haines said in a statement, “While the unionization of Keywords Studios employees in Edmonton does not involve BioWare employees, we want to be clear that we at EA respect the process and the right of workers to choose.”
Like the video game industry, major tech companies have been slow to organize, which raises the question of why this is movement is unfolding now. Smith said the agreement with the CWA was not an attempt by Microsoft to present the Activision Blizzard merger on more favorable terms to antitrust regulators, with whom the company has had multiple tussles, including a 1998 antitrust case for which Bill Gates testified before Congress. Microsoft was more inspired by its organized employees in Europe and South Korea, he said.
“We haven’t had the specific unionization efforts directly in the U.S. that some others have but we have a deep respect for the role of unions in a democracy,” Smith said. “Just look at what organized labor has done for the rights of people in this country for 150 years. It’s part of the success of this country. And if there’s an opportunity for us to connect with that in a new way, I think it’s good for everybody.”
Labor professors agreed the deal between Microsoft and the CWA was historically groundbreaking.
“In a way, [Microsoft’s deal with the CWA] is a recognition that the mood is changing,” said Margaret O’Mara, a tech and politics professor at the University of Washington. “The political winds are changing. There has been more public conversation and activism, particularly since the beginning of the pandemic, around unionization. It’s this company that has presented itself as the grown up in the room, presenting itself as a good corporate citizen, being proactive about regulation and working with governments.”
Wilma Liebman, former chairman of the National Labor Relations Board under former president Barack Obama, said one motivation for the deal with the CWA could be the future approval of its acquisition of Activision Blizzard.
“I’m sure some, if not a key part, of the motivation for Microsoft entering into this agreement is to mitigate opposition to the merger with Activision,” Liebman said. “Indeed, the CWA expressly says it now approves the merger. Undoubtedly, Microsoft believes that its ‘softer’ stance on unionization may reap a benefit in the antitrust investigation, particularly in the Biden administration.”