The Los Angeles Times has reported that on Tuesday, January 7th the Communication Workers of America (CWA), the largest media labor union in the United States, has joined the organization Game Workers Unite (GWA) to launch a new initiative dubbed the Campaign to Organize Digital Employees, or CODE for short. This new CODE campaign signals the commitment of these two large unions to unify the tech and gaming sectors and to help protect employees from labor abuses.
The Los Angeles Times’s report explains that the decision to launch the CODE campaign came out of talks between Communication Workers of America and Game Workers Unite, the latter of which is a “grass-roots organization” that formed in 2018 to advocate for unionization in the tech and gaming sectors. In 2019, video games were a $43 billion industry.
We believe workers are strongest when they’re together in one shop in one union.
The union did not disclose how much money it will provide the new CODE campaign to the Los Angeles Times. They did share that they’ve hired two new organizers for the CODE initiative, including Game Workers Unite co-founder Emma Kinema.
“We believe workers are strongest when they’re together in one shop in one union, so the disciplines can’t be pitted against each other–none of that’s good for the workers,” Kinema told the Los Angeles Times. “I think in games and tech the wall-to-wall industrial model is the best fit.”
The CODE campaign from the CWA union and Game Workers Unite is in response to an increasing awareness of working conditions that negatively affect the health, well-being, and employment security of workers in the video game and tech industries. One major issue that has seen an increase in public awareness is “crunch culture,” with reports that major development studios like Rockstar encourage (but not mandate) 100-hour work weeks when crafting AAA titles. More recently, reports have emerged detailing the negative crunch culture at Treyarch during development of Call of Duty: Black Ops 4 that saw employees sleeping in their offices and dealing with panic responses due to the pressure of difficult to satisfy deadlines. “Rolling layoffs” are also a prevalent issue, as video game studios and tech companies cut jobs at the close of major projects to fit their production schedules.
The original version of Telltale Games, the development studio that produced the narrative-driven titles The Walking Dead and The Wolf Among Us, saw massive layoffs and a sudden closure in 2018 before being revived, along with series rights, by LCG Entertainment in August 2019. CEO Jaimie Ottilie has stated that he and the new Telltale Games “are taking a measured and methodical approach to growth in order to ensure we can provide a stable, non-crunch work environment.”
Sexual and gender discrimination is also an issue for the video game and tech industries. In 2018 a class action lawsuit was filed against Riot Games, the developer behind League of Legends. Riot was accused of violating the California Equal Pay Act and encouraging a “bro culture” that illegally put men first in the workplace. As part of the settlement, Riot Games will pay at least $10 million to the approximately 1,000 female and female-identifying employees who worked at Riot between 2014 and August 2019, the date of the settlement.
People are feeling a disconnect between their personal values and what they’re seeing every day in their personal lives.
The organizers with the new Campaign to Organize Digital Employees campaign understand that the need for worker protections and corporate ethics in the video games and tech industries go hand in hand. “I think it’s a false dichotomy to frame the activism of a lot of tech workers around the impact that the work they do has on society as something other than a fundamental working condition,” Tom Smith, the CWA’s lead organizer, told the Los Angeles Times. “For a lot of folks, that’s what led them to do this work in the first place, and people are feeling a disconnect between their personal values and what they’re seeing every day in their personal lives.”
A recent poll by the industry group International Games Developers Association (IGDA) found that interest among video game and tech employees in unionizing was on the rise. In 2009 only one-third of workers were interested in organizing to protect their labor rights but in 2019 49% of those polled reported that they would support a labor union at their employer. Only 16% of those polled voted “no” on unionizing.