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Opinion: Canada's first video game union shows that labour organizing is on the rise

In an important step for an industry that has been accused of exploitative working conditions for decades, video game workers in Edmonton recently voted to unionize for the first time in Canada.
Video game unions are notoriously rare in North America.

In a historic move, video game workers in Edmonton unanimously voted to unionize for the first time in Canada. c There are only two others on the continent, both of which are in the U.S.

This union is an important step for an industry that has been accused of exploitative working conditions for decades. The workers at Keywords Studio were motivated by concerns over return-to-work policies following the COVID-19 pandemic, a weak time-off policy and low pay.

Other industry issues include employment insecurity, long and unpredictable working hours, unpaid overtime and the prevalence of gender discrimination and sexual harassment.

Workers from Keywords Studios filed for union certification with the United Food and Commercial Workers Local 401 on April 20. The studio published a statement accepting the vote on their website, stating they will have “ongoing dialogue with all individuals in the Edmonton team.”

Keywords Studios’ Edmonton team is contracted to BioWare, a game company famous for the Dragon Age and Mass Effect series. They do quality assurance and game testing, an important, but often undervalued role in the industry.

The first video game union

Some game workers were members of broad sectoral unions in Sweden as early as 2005. But the grassroots organization Game Workers Unite changed the scene in 2018.

Game Workers Unite positioned itself as an organizing body interested in unionizing the global game industry in whatever way possible. It quickly spread through largely autonomous regional chapters.

Game Workers Unite took on direct roles in training, capacity building and awareness raising. It also connected game worker activists to existing unions with greater organizational resources.

Now, four years later, we see concerted engagement of established unions and a growing list of success stories across a range of geographic and regulatory contexts, including Canada, the U.S., the U.K., Ireland, France, Sweden, Finland, Croatia, Australia and South Korea.

Why did unionization take so long?

In his book on collective action, industrial relations scholar John Kelly says that fluctuations in worker mobilization mirror the economic rhythms of capitalism, which periodically cause economic situations that provoke collective action.

We can trace the history of game worker resistance to see some of these fluctuations. Examples include the Easter Egg planted by programmer Warren Robinett in Atari’s Adventure, the brief formation of a virtual union called UbiFree in France in 1998 and the infamous EA Spouse affair in 2004.

But these actions came and went without becoming a consistent mobilizing effort. According to Kelly, this is because certain conditions must be met for mobilization to occur.

First, workers must identify a shared injustice and attribute it to their employer. Secondly, the movement must have the organizational structure to sustain long term communication and collective decision-making. Thirdly, there must be adequate leadership to leverage dissatisfaction into action and sustain momentum.

Lastly, since organizing is a bit of a gamble, workers must be able to see an opportunity for success. They analyze the power balance in their employment relationship, the costs of continued repression by ruling parties and the permissiveness of the legal regime to decide whether that gamble is worth it.

Game workers have met some criteria, like having a collective identity. Other necessary conditions, like a clear sense of class consciousness, leadership and organizational capacity have only recently emerged.

The industry is waking up

Game makers are now seeing themselves as workers in an exploitative employment relationship where powerful multinational conglomerates often call the shots.

The shine is coming off the rhetoric of “passion” that reinforces individualism, valorizes heroic efforts for the sake of the game and promotes worker alignment with employer interests.

The discourse about poor working conditions is rising. Developers are identifying issues as collective problems that can be won through organizing. This development of collective consciousness has been fuelled, in part, by:

These have helped ignite interest in collective action and reinforce the costs of doing nothing. However, it is largely due to the emergence of leadership and organizational capacity that the patchwork of worker resistance has become a sustained unionization effort.

Looking toward the future

The future is bright for game worker unionizing. Momentum is high and, so far, the movement has faced relatively little employer resistance.

At first, Activision Blizzard hired an alleged union-busting firm and reportedly sent out anti-union messages. It has changed its tune. It now pledges to “engage in good-faith negotiations” with the new quality assurance union at Raven Software.

In late 2021, a union was voluntarily recognized at indie studie Vodeo Games without the need for a vote. It became the first certified game worker union in North America.

But some challenges still exist. In regulatory contexts that require unions to form by majority vote of workers, like in Canada and the U.S., the road to that majority can be long. Organizing drives in large studios will take time.

In minority union contexts and countries with sectoral unions, representation can come more quickly, but worksite power might be lacking. Workers, employers and policymakers may also need to reconcile a system of localized unions against the regional and international mobility of the industry.

Still, this slow shift toward unionization is promising for an industry that has been plagued by worker exploitation. Union organizers are starting to see their hard work pay off, and the success of these three unions has set a precedent for other unions to form — if unionization succeeded here, it can succeed elsewhere.

The Conversation

Johanna Weststar has received funding from the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada, the Dancap Private Equity Fund, International Game Developer Association (IGDA) and the IGDA Foundation.