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Postcard From GDC 2005: Quality of Life Summit - Labor Relations 101

Gina Neff, from UC San Diego, took the podium at the Quality Of Life summit to address the audience on the growing question of unionization in the videogame industry. Rather than push any one answer, Neff's goal was to clear some misconceptions about unions, and to offer a palette of options, to get the audience thinking about what the industry really needs, perhaps to craft its own solution.

Gina Neff

After the McConnell lecture on quality of life, Gina Neff, from UC San Diego, took the podium to address the audience on the growing question of unionization in the videogame industry. Rather than push any one answer, Neff's goal was to clear some misconceptions about unions, and to offer a palette of options, to get the audience thinking about what the industry really needs, perhaps to craft its own solution.

To begin with, Neff was unsure that a union, in the classic sense, was right for the videogame industry. The typical U.S. union is still based on what Neff described as an antiquated "hotshop" model, based on the old industrial model. That style of union was formed for a certain context, and it worked well for that purpose. The classic union demands, however, are not always applicable to a modern business model. Most software engineers, for instance, understand a mandatory nine-to-five work schedule as inappropriate. On the other hand, current unions, such as the Writers' Guild, are making steps to address new concerns and new working models; Neff suggests that in some respects American unions need the videogame industry, to help them to become more flexible; to redefine what worker representation and negotiation are.

There are other questions about how helpful a classic union might be. As Neff phrased it, the "pessimistic and, sadly, often realistic" view is that NLRA law has been gutted in recent years - and even given that, companies routinely break the law to stop union drives. Then when union organizing drives win, companies often refuse to bargain in good faith.

That said, Neff explained the first steps in setting up a union:

  • Figure out the right "international"
  • Learn skills for talking with co-workers.
  • Figure out the long-term campaign strategy. (Three years is optimistic.)

She suggested the Communication Workers of America as a "good fit," as far as U.S. organizations go, in that they have experience working with technology workers and they are incorporating new models of unionism. The CWA has an organizing mission, and can help train you for campaigns. "Training," Neff points out, "can be key." Likewise, the AFL-CIO can provide general information and history on unions, and some ideas on how to talk to co-workers. Naff also provided links to the South African Labour Guide and BIGLabor.com, and recommended A Troublemakers' Handbook, edited by Jane Slaughter.

Neff again stressed that in some respects, the union movement needs the videogame industry. The U.S. workplace is changing; unions need to address issues in a non-industrial context, and they need new organizing energy. There's also the problem of declining union membership; Neff suggests that a slogan like "Gamers of the World Unite" is a PR coup, that would do as much to revitalize unions in general as to aid workers in the industry.

There are problems, of course. Can an organizing drive work, for instance, in the "New Economy?" Modern attitudes make for a different experience from the past, with its clear, regimented power structure. Today's workers, often as not, feel when they make a contribution to their business, that, in a sense, they own a piece of that business. Likewise, there is more of a sense of "heterarchy," as she put it: workers tend to feel more or less at a level with their managers, and as such have less of a sense of "The Man" repressing them, to drive them toward organizing. Then there are the huge turnover rate in the industry (with giants like EA bleeding as much as half their workforce on a yearly basis), small studio size, and project-based work structure to account for.

Another big problem is that of freelance work - which accounts for much of the skilled labor in modern game development. Freelancers typically get none of the benefits of a salaried employee, notably a lack of health insurance; few freelance writers and artists have any health insurance at all. A solution Neff provided is to offer a way for freelancers to buy coverage: organize a "freelancer union," that provides the services independent workers need, including savings on health insurance and advocacy on issues.

Then there's the issue of inequality amongst tech-workers. Training costs can be high for individuals; Neff touched on the problem of "perma-temps," outsourcing issues, and age discrimination. There is no collective voice for problems of high-tech workers. Neff's solution is to offer a membership-based union. This strategy avoids the problem of individual "shops," faced by the classic union structure, where unions would go from company to company - GM and Nabisco, say - to unionize the entire workforce. Another problem it avoids is that of defining the bargaining unit, and the lengthy certification process. Further, a union with this structure can explicitly advocate for workers in the industry as a whole. Neff pointed out techsunite.org as an example to study.

Other solutions Neff gave include advocacy groups such as Cyberlodge and the CPSR, and freelance cooperatives, like Paneris.

In closing, Neff insisted that collective models do work in the "New Economy." She reiterated that while unions provide one kind of support, they are not the only solution. Ultimately, she said, for any collective solution to work, the people it concerns have to build it on their own, according to their own needs, and buy into it.

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