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A massive telecom union just launched a new campaign to unionize game developers

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A new campaign from the CWA union is the most serious effort yet

Verizon Workers On Strike Photo by Jessica Rinaldi/The Boston Globe via Getty Images

The Communication Workers of America (CWA), one of the largest unions in the US formed initially by telecom workers, has launched a new campaign to help unionize the game and technology industries. Called The Campaign to Organize Digital Employees (CODE), the initiative is working with grassroots organizing efforts around the US and in Canada to improve working conditions among video game developers and tech workers. The news was first reported on Tuesday by the Los Angeles Times.

For years, game developers have complained of brutal working hours, including expected and even planned-for periods of extreme overwork known as crunch. Workers in the industry have also suffered from a culture and economic structure in the game industry that incentivizes studios to rapidly hire and lay off workers unless deadlines are properly met or funding and sales milestones help keep a studio and its workforce afloat. Churn at certain studios can be high, and workers have little to no protection outside federal unemployment if a studio shutters or mass layoffs strike their department.

The CWA’s new campaign is building on previous efforts to address these issues. One of the central leaders of the new campaign is Emma Kinema, who co-founded Game Workers Unite (GWU) two years ago amid renewed conversations among developers and in the media regarding game studio working conditions and cyclical layoffs. The new campaign was formed after discussions between CWA and GWU, but it is a distinct effort and the first of its kind for the game and tech industries.

“Companies in the technology and game industries have gotten away with avoiding accountability for far too long,” CWA president Chris Shelton said in a statement. “Workers in these industries are exposing the reality behind the rhetoric. This initiative will help tech and game workers reach the next level in their efforts to exercise their right to join together and demand change.”

The structure of game development makes these efforts difficult. Unlike television or film, both of which have been properly unionized for decades, game development is largely consolidated among a handful of large corporations that act as studio parent companies and publishers. The rest of the industry is composed of medium-sized or small studios that secure deals with publishers or do contract work for larger companies. Beyond that exists small teams making independent games for direct sale on digital storefronts.

In none of these sectors of the game industry are there proper unions that protect creatives and other workers, save voice actors who fall under the SAG-AFTRA union. And yet, it’s those creatives who often face the direct repercussions of missed sales expectations or other misfires, which then result in a studio deciding to perform layoffs, sell itself off, or, in extreme situations, shut down completely. This has made programming, art, game writing, and other roles in the game industry much more economically fraught than screenwriting, film production, costume designing, and the dozens of other union-protected roles that make up Hollywood’s vast film and TV ecosystem.

The partnership with the CWA may heighten the pressure on larger game companies to take unionization seriously and meet with workers who want to begin negotiating a contract. “In my experience self-organizing in the game industry, people are very bottlenecked by the lack of resources and lack of legal know-how and a lack of funding — it’s very tough,” Kinema told the LA Times in an interview. “The decades of experience and resources that come from partnering with an organization like CWA can take it to the next level.”

CWA also hopes to use CODE to help unionize technology companies along similar lines. The goal right now is to help employees organize most realistically as single groups within companies, known as the industrial model, as opposed to a craft model that would unionize distinct roles across the industry, which may be more difficult (although CWA says it will support whatever model employees may want to pursue). CWA is also helping a group of fired Google employees with a complaint of unfair labor practices filed with the National Labor Relations Board after the search giant allegedly fired them for labor organizing activities. Google is now under federal investigation for the firings.

“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, who CWA hired to help run the CODE, told the LA Times. “I think in games and tech, the wall-to-wall industrial model is the best fit.”