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BioWare contractors want a union

They’re organizing following a return to office mandate

The contractors have worked on games like Mass Effect Legendary Edition.
Image: EA

A group of contractors supporting EA-owned BioWare is trying to unionize. Part of the reason is because they’ll be required to return to the office, even while full-time BioWare employees who work at the same location are being offered a hybrid work from home option, two employees told The Verge.

The organizing group is employed by Keywords Studios, a company that offers services like quality assurance testing and localization for game development companies. One employee expects the unit will consist of between 15 and 20 individuals.

These Keywords employees are embedded directly with BioWare’s team at the company’s office in Edmonton, Canada, and have worked on titles like Mass Effect Legendary Edition, the newest Star Wars: The Old Republic expansion, and, most recently, Dragon Age 4. The sources The Verge spoke to for this article requested anonymity so they could speak openly.

Based on the new mandate, the Keywords Studios staffers will be required to come into the office beginning May 9th, employees told The Verge. Kotaku also reported the May 9th return to work date.

The group is also rallying around issues with pay and time off. Two Keywords Studios staffers said the company starts pay at minimum wage, which is $15 CAD per hour in Alberta (or a little under $12 USD), which can be tough to live on. One source claimed that full-time BioWare staffers are paid much more and that a previous Keywords Studios staffer took a lower-level position at BioWare and is making about twice as much money.

“We absolutely want to continue delivering amazing experiences” to fans of BioWare’s games, one employee said. “It’s just [that] we need to be able to support ourselves.”

Keywords Studios staffers also don’t receive paid sick days or personal days, according to two staffers.

The Alberta Labour Relations Board is currently reviewing the group’s application to form a bargaining unit to negotiate with the company, which includes determining if at least 40 percent of the people in the potential union support it. Employees must file any objections to the application by 9AM on May 3rd, but assuming it moves forward, the employees will be able to vote to form the bargaining unit in a secret ballot. One employee expects votes won’t actually be counted until about a month from that May 3rd date and that it will be a mail-in ballot.

The Alberta Labour Relations Board’s notice.
Image: u/KeywordsUnitedYEG on r/alberta

Keywords Studios staffers have seen what they view as retaliation from management in response to the organizing efforts, sources told The Verge and Kotaku. “Some of our more outspoken members were disciplined by the company” shortly after the application was filed last Wednesday, one said.

But sources The Verge spoke to stressed that they respect their BioWare colleagues. “The workers at the BioWare studios have treated us very well. We don’t really have anything bad to say about the people that we work with. Obviously, it reflects on EA using Keywords as a service,” one said. But actual individuals at the studio have “been quite good to us.”

The group’s organizing follows recent unionizing efforts from quality assurance staffers at Raven Software, an Activision Blizzard studio known for its work on the Call of Duty series. The Raven workers just got a big victory last week when the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) ruled that the unit voting to form a union would be composed of 21 employees instead of the much larger group that Activision Blizzard had argued for.

“Raven Software was actually a huge inspiration for us,” said one Keywords staffer. “We saw, ‘Hey, these guys are also taking on one of the biggest companies out there. We can stand up and do the same.’”

EA and Keywords Studios haven’t replied to requests for comment.