While big tech historically has a relationship with unions somewhere between "disdain" and "open warfare," Xbox and Windows parent company Microsoft is looking to change that, as hundreds of quality assurance (QA) workers at subsidiary ZeniMax Media seek to organize.
Over 300 QA workers at Bethesda Softworks are forming a union, the first of its kind under Microsoft. ZeniMax Workers United union comprises QA workers across the U.S., including Arkane Austin, Bethesda Game Studios, id Software, and ZeniMax Online Studios. These teams have worked on franchises like Dishonored, Doom, Fallout, The Elder Scrolls, and more, being responsible for some of the best Xbox games available.
If successful, it will be the largest union in the gaming industry and one of only a tiny handful in North America, joining the established unions at Activision-owned Raven Software and Blizzard Albany.
This move comes at an interesting time. Microsoft acquired ZeniMax Media in March 2021 for $8.1 billion, adding its development studios at Bethesda Softworks to the Xbox first-party development group. The first two big games from this merger, Starfield and Redfall are slated to launch in the first half of 2023. Microsoft is also working to acquire Activision Blizzard for almost $69 billion, a deal that is seeing regulatory challenges.
I spoke with Dylan Burton, senior QA tester at id Software in Dallas, Texas, to help understand why the workers are pulling together and what they are hoping to accomplish. Burton has worked at id Software since 2019, contributing to games like Doom Eternal.
When I asked how long this push has been going on, they explained that for a long time, the idea unionization could actually happen was seen as "kind of a joke,", especially in Texas, but that more recent events made it seem possible.
"About June or July of this year, a handful of us at Id [Software] actually started talking seriously about trying to organize for real, and then we started picking up people on the way," Burton says. "Eventually, we got in touch with the Maryland studios and started coordinating about what we've been doing."
QA is infamous for facing issues across the gaming industry, with low pay, systemic crunch, and the denial of future opportunities just some of the issues facing the workers responsible for crucial elements of a game's production.
When asked why the teams are unionizing, Burton clearly states that one of the biggest issues comes down to pay, as everyone unionizing agrees the workers' payment hasn't kept up with the cost of living, with many employees having to share apartments with multiple roommates.
"And that's not a problem that's [specific] to QA," they explain. "But that's a problem that's affecting everyone. And it just happens that we're trying to solve it for ourselves. And hopefully, it would be cool if that was a catalyst for other people to do the same thing."
When I asked if ZeniMax Workers United is hoping to inspire other groups both at Microsoft and elsewhere in the gaming industry, Burton says, "That's absolutely my hope," adding that "...if we can be a positive influence for other QA [at other] studios, then I would be overjoyed to see that happen."
While setting off a chain reaction of unionization might once have been seen as a pipe dream, recent events have made it more likely than ever. Earlier in the year, Microsoft signed an agreement with the Communication Workers of America (CWA), promising to remain neutral in any unionization efforts undertaken by Activision Blizzard workers starting 60 days after the merger finalizes.
It was an unprecedented agreement that earned Microsoft labor allies, with the CWA condemning the FTC's decision to try and block Microsoft's purchase of Activision Blizzard. While Microsoft also stated that it would take a neutral approach in any labor organization going on internally, ZeniMax Workers United is putting that to the test. So far, it appears to be holding up.
"We're all grateful that Microsoft has been working in good faith with us and has agreed to this neutrality agreement," Burton said. "And we're pretty optimistic that we're going to be able to work out a good contract. And hopefully, that will serve as sort of a precedent for other studios hoping to do the same thing."
Historically, big companies have tried engaging in union-busting tactics, shuffling workers around, using explicit or implicit threats, and trying to offer benefits to anyone not organizing. I asked Burton if anything of the sort had taken place at ZeniMax. According to them, there hasn't been any suppression taking place.
"In fact, I've had nothing but encouraging conversations whenever I had to ask a manager or someone from HR, just a clarification on like, 'Hey, is it okay if I, you know, send this email or something? I don't want to step on anybody's toes,'" Burton says. "And they've all been very genuine and, at the very least neutral. And then better than that, usually. So I'm pretty encouraged by the interactions I've had so far with management."
"I hope that we can get people to decide to stay in QA," they say, adding that "QA specifically has historically had a really bad problem with turnover. And it makes it hard for us to retain talent and expertise when other fields or other positions elsewhere are more attractive. "
"And you see that it sort of feels like a dead end. And hopefully, we want to change that; we hope to keep people in QA, and at least allow that to be a choice for them to feel like they can stay in QA and grow there."
A unionized portion of the gaming industry would bring additional benefits for beleaguered workers and additional things for workers to consider when choosing where to continue their careers. Burton notes that generally if someone has to consider two job offers, one of which includes the protections a union can create, they'd probably be more inclined to take that offer.
When I asked Burton about why players should care about the industry being unionized and why it was a good thing, they explained that people seeing QA as unskilled or disposable creates a "self-fulfilling prophecy" where it's harder for QA workers to be appreciated.
"But my hope would be that, as that narrative continues to evolve, that people stopped asking the question, 'Why do you need a union?' And hopefully, stop asking that question of any position," they said. "I don't think there should be any gatekeeping on that. I think anyone, like from Starbucks, or you know, we've seen stuff with the rail workers lately it. It's so important, in my opinion, that we all have the ability to protect our right to working in a comfortable workplace."
Burton adds that it's essential to recognize the advancements that have taken place so far, noting that conditions now are a far cry from how the industry handled QA even 10 years ago. This makes unions even more critical, they say, so that "there's no risk of going back."
To close out our conversation, Burton explains that forming a union with a successful vote is just the beginning of a new phase, as the teams across the different U.S. studios figure out what issues need to be addressed, put together a negotiating committee, and get a contract.
"It's kind of hard to see exactly what's in the future because a lot of that's going to depend on what goes in the contract," they say. "And we don't know that yet. There definitely will continue to be work to be done, but I'm excited to do that work."
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