Will Activision Blizzard workers unionize? Microsoft's deal complicates things The video game industry has long been resistant to organizing. But quality assurance testers at video game giant Activision Blizzard hope to change that.

Will Activision Blizzard workers unionize? Microsoft's deal complicates things

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MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

Microsoft announced recently it plans to buy the video game giant Activision Blizzard. The acquisition comes at a time when more and more workers in the video game industry are speaking out about workplace issues - long hours, low pay, sexual harassment and more. Some of the loudest voices have come from workers at Activision Blizzard, and a small group of them hope to form a union to protect themselves from these issues. But as NPR's Andrew Limbong reports, they are facing a high hurdle.

ANDREW LIMBONG, BYLINE: Even in the best of cases, QA testing in games - that is quality assurance - is long and tedious work.

JESSICA GONZALEZ: Because you're doing the same thing repetitively to try to produce different results.

LIMBONG: That's Jessica Gonzalez, former senior test analyst at Blizzard Entertainment, a subsidiary of the company. She says as a QA tester, you're looking at every nook and cranny of the game to make sure nothing's broken. And you're often up against tight deadlines, which means pulling in lots of overtime at the last minute.

GONZALEZ: We're essentially working 24 hours on the clock to get it out.

LIMBONG: And that's not even getting at some of the workplace issues specific to Activision Blizzard. Over the summer, the California Department of Fair Employment and Housing sued the company, alleging the workplace was discriminatory towards women and that sexual harassment was rampant in the company.

CEO Bobby Kotick has repeatedly drawn criticism for his handling of sexual misconduct there. Then, the company laid off a number of QA testers at Raven Software, another Activision Blizzard subsidiary that works on games such as Call of Duty. Here's Erin Hall, QA tester at Raven.

ERIN HALL: There's been a lot of things happening with the company on a corporate level that just doesn't sit right with a lot of us.

LIMBONG: So in January, Hall and some 30 of her fellow QA testers at Raven announced they'd be joining a union with the Communication Workers of America, or CWA. In a statement, Raven Software studio head Brian Raffel said the company reviewed and considered CWA's initial request and couldn't find a mutually acceptable solution. Now the workers are petitioning the National Labor Relations Board for a vote.

TOM KOCHAN: Workers at large companies have a very difficult time achieving collective bargaining status.

LIMBONG: That's Tom Kochan from the MIT Sloan School of Management. He says Activision Blizzard's got the same tools as other big companies at their disposal. They can make big speeches to the staff and hire anti-union consultants.

And then there's the question of who is unionizing. Kochan says if the QA testers at Raven want to narrow the vote to just them instead of every game developer at Activision Blizzard, then they'll need to show that they are a unique and separate group of skilled workers. Historically, that's done through apprenticeship programs or professional credentials.

KOCHAN: And the NLRB, the National Labor Relations Board, tends to honor those traditions. That tradition hasn't been developed yet in the larger gaming industry.

LIMBONG: And then there's the oncoming $68 billion Microsoft acquisition deal hanging overhead. If that goes through...

KOCHAN: And then you have an even more giant management ladder to climb to gain recognition.

LIMBONG: Jessica Gonzalez is clear-eyed about the uphill fight the QA workers face at Activision Blizzard.

GONZALEZ: They're going to try to do the legal minimum required and either try to exhaust the efforts or bully everyone out of the company because it's cheaper. It's cheaper than paying everyone better.

LIMBONG: Gonzalez herself left the company in December, she says because of the harassment she encountered. And she's now helping the workers organize from outside the company. The NLRB just started their hearing on the case, but it could take weeks, months even, to hear if an election will even be allowed.

Andrew Limbong, NPR News.

KELLY: Just a note that many of NPR's broadcast technicians are part of the Communications Workers of America.

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