Microsoft pledges neutrality in union campaigns at Activision

The headquarters of the video game maker Activision Blizzard in Irvine, California, on May 21, 2022. (File photo: NYTimes)
Microsoft and the Communications Workers of America union announced an agreement June 13 that would make it easier for employees to unionize at video game-maker Activision Blizzard, which Microsoft is acquiring for $70 billion.اضافة اعلان

Under the deal, which appears to be the first of its kind in the technology industry, Microsoft agreed to remain neutral if any of Activision’s eligible US employees want to unionize, and employees would no longer have to petition the National Labor Relations Board for an election. The company has almost 7,000 employees in the US, most of whom will be eligible to unionize under the arrangement.

A group of nearly 30 employees at one of Activision’s studios voted to unionize through an NLRB election in May despite Activision’s opposition to holding the election. But completing such a process can be time-consuming, with unions and employers sometimes spending months or even years litigating the results.

Through the agreement, workers will have access to an expedited process for unionizing, overseen by a neutral third party, in which they will indicate their support for a union either by signing cards or confidentially through an electronic platform.

“This process does gives us and Microsoft a way to do this quote unquote election without spending the time, the effort and the controversy that goes along with an NLRB election,” said Chris Shelton, president of the Communications Workers union.

The union said that the neutrality agreement resolved the antitrust concerns it had with the acquisition and that it now supported the deal, which Microsoft has said will close by the end of June 2023.

Shelton and Microsoft President Brad Smith suggested that the deal could pave the way to wider unionization across the company and the industry. “This is a great opportunity for us to work with Chris and the CWA and to learn and innovate,” Smith said. Microsoft said it was prepared to “build on” the deal in the future, but it did not specifically comment on whether it planned to extend the terms to other gaming workers at the company.

Microsoft indicated that under the agreement, it would refrain from an aggressive anti-union campaign if other Activision employees sought to unionize. “In practical terms, it means that we’re not going to try to jump in and put a thumb on the scale,” Smith said. “We will respect the fact that our employees are capable of making decisions for themselves and they have a right to do that.”

The agreement between Microsoft and the union would also protect workers’ right to communicate among themselves and with union officials about a union campaign — something many employers seek to discourage — and stipulates that disagreements between the company and the union will be resolved through an “expedited arbitration process.” NLRB complaints can take months or years to resolve.

When Microsoft and Activision announced their blockbuster deal in January, the game-maker was under stress as it faced accusations that senior executives had ignored sexual harassment and discrimination. Those concerns spurred organizing among Activision employees, including workers at its Raven Software studio in Wisconsin, which has developed games in popular franchises like Call of Duty.

After a group of roughly 30 quality assurance, or QA, workers announced that they were seeking to unionize, Activision sought to convince the federal labor board that their election should not go forward. The game workers accused Activision of union-busting tactics, like increasing the pay of non-Raven QA workers and splitting QA workers up by embedding them across the Raven studio.

Activision maintained that while some changes in this vein came after the union campaign went public, the broader shift in approach had already been underway.

The company argued that the entire Raven studio, comprising hundreds of workers, should have been allowed to vote on forming a union, rather than just a few dozen QA workers. QA employees, often on temporary contracts, are commonly considered the most overworked and underpaid members of game studios.

In early March, the union signed a letter asking federal regulators to scrutinize the acquisition. “The potential takeover by Microsoft threatens to further undermine workers’ rights and suppress wages,” the letter said.

Microsoft has since tried to strike a conciliatory tone. It said it would not stop Activision from voluntarily recognizing the union before a formal election, which Activision did not do. After the Raven QA workers voted in late May to form the first union at a major North American game publisher, Phil Spencer, head of gaming at Microsoft, told employees that he would recognize the Raven union once the deal between the two companies closed, gaming news site Kotaku reported, citing a video of an employee town hall.

Activision said it was starting contract negotiations with the newly unionized Raven workers.

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