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Labor organizers share insight and tips on unionizing the game industry

“I don't think it’s much to ask, in an industry that’s three times the size of Hollywood, to get a meaningful return on the risk you’re taking and the opportunity you’re creating."

Alex Wawro, Contributor

March 22, 2019

11 Min Read

There’s been a lot of talk about unionization in the game industry, so today at GDC some union workers took the stage in front of an audience of game makers to share what they’d learned about effectively organizing labor. 

During the hour-long session panel members Emma Kinema (Game Workers Unite International), Kevin Gregory Agwaze (Game Workers Unite UK), Linda Dao (SAG-AFTRA), Justin Molito (Writers Guild of America, East) and Liz Shuler of AFL-CIO (which published an open letter encouraging game devs to organize) fielded some notable labor questions from game devs.

It was a fast-paced discussion that spanned a lot of topics, so if you have time (and access) you might want to rewatch it when the recording eventually goes up on the GDC Vault.

While the latter half was dedicated to audience questions, Kinema first introduced everyone on the panel, which together spanned experience organizing voice actors, writers, game developers, electricians, and more.

Right up front, Agwaze acknowledged that while he and his collaborators helped organize the United Kingdom's first game dev union, they had to do it by focusing on the national level, rather than taking a more traditional company-by-company approach.

“As opposed to unionizing shop by shop, by forming a national union, you have a lot of members,” acknowledged Agwaze, but “it’s a space that traditional unions aren’t super sure how to approach yet. It’s been a space that’s been traditionally not unionized, and it’s a challenge to figure out how to do it.”

“The most important lesson there is to make sure that we listen, as organizers," added Molito, who talked a bit about his experience helping organize writers at digital media companies like Vice and Gawker. "When we’re trained as organizers we’re told we have two ears and one mouth, and thus we should be doing twice as much listening. So as an organization we listened very closely to what the people in the digital media sector were saying. They were talking about overwork, underpay, and other common issues.”

Molito says his experience helping writers to unionize taught him the importance of using modern digital tools to organize, at a workplace level and (more importantly) across the whole movement.

To unionize the game industry, focus less on studios and more on the movement at large

“One lesson that was extremely important...is having a movement approach”, added Molito. “So we’re not talking about organizing one shop, or one place, that happens to be the bad place to work. We’re talking about organizing the entire industry, so standards are set across the board, no matter what company you’re working for on any given day...we’re no longer working in an economy where people work at one place for 30-40 years. People jump from place to place all the time.”

The game industry often works the same way, and Agwaze advises anyone trying to organize labor in this business to make as much noise as possible, as often as possible, in as many different channels as possible. It's a key piece of Game Workers U.K.'s strategy, not only because it's good marketing but because at this early stage in organizing, there's just a lot of questions to be asked and answered.

“We have a newsletter that’s biweekly, we have a Discord where people can speak to us, we are going to have a weekly meeting just with our membership, where everyone can join and ask questions,” added Agwaze. “We also have regional meetings once a month...so people can meet up in real life, and get to know each other. We just constantly communicate what we’re doing.”

Since most game industry workers aren’t familiar with what unions are or how they work, Agwaze says his nascent union has had to work hard to keep spreading the word about what they’re doing. The fast pace of work in the game industry hasn’t helped.

“Everyone is working really hard, they’re crunching, so...sometimes we also have to work hard to show them what we’re doing,” he said.

SAG-AFTRA's also cautioned game makers not to overlook the value and necessity of making time for one-on-one conversations when you're trying to organize a group of workers. People need to feel enthusiastic about being part of something bigger, and direct face-to-face conversations are a great way to do that.

“You want to make sure that people are educated...that people are involved, and excited to be involved,” added Dao. “So one-on-ones are super important.”

Shuler jumped in to say that, on the bright side, she’s seen a recent surge in labor organization, citing the recent Marriott workers strike as a good example of how workers can successfully fight for better pay and more protection on the job.

“We’re seeing a movement moment,” she added. “I think people are discovering that they don’t have to sit back and take it. They can fight back.”

"The solution to [current wealth inequality] is mass organizing into militant, strong labor unions"

“I don't think it’s much to ask, in an industry that’s three times the size of Hollywood, to get a meaningful return on the risk you’re taking and the opportunity you’re creating,” Shuler continued. “The law protects workers who want to come together, no matter what your workplace looks like or what kind of work you do.”

“It really is about this power dynamic,” she continued. “What we’re seeing, not just in this industry but everywhere, is this concentration where the profits go to a handful of people, and the working people get the short end of the stick."

Shuler believes a lot of people in the game industry (and the world at large) have an outdated understanding of what labor unions do, and how members can benefit. They can offer viable portable health benefits, for example, which might be valuable in a game industry which regularly sees independent workers and workers between jobs asking for money on platforms like GoFundMe to help cover medical expenses.

“People think portable benefits is a new concept,” added Shuler. “It’s not. Unions have been giving workers benefits for decades.”

“What’s happening is the massive disparity of wealth inequality in this country," added Molito. "There are a few people that are taking everybody’s money and making people work like 60-70 hours a week, and giving them just enough to survive to continue producing wealth."

"The solution to that is mass organizing into militant, strong labor unions.”

“There’s obviously enormous fear about collective action, because the organizations you’re fighting against have all the power,” Molito continued. “But you find, when you talk to people who are in the same situation that you are, that there’s going to be a lot of solidarity.”

So if you want to get involved, Molito recommends you get out there and find other workers in a similar situation, both within your organization and without. 

“Really just develop that solidarity by talking to each other about what you’re experiencing,” he advised.

“You’re used to working in an open-source environment and solving problems collectively,” added Shuler. “You can apply those same skills and techniques to organizing.”

“It’s all about talking to the people you work with,” said Dao. “Find out their problems, and make connections...we’re all facing these problems, and we want to fight for better conditions.”

The latter half of the panel was turned over to the audience to ask questions, so we've gone ahead and excerpted some of the better ones below"

What about independent developers?

“The independent development scene looks a little bit to me like the independent film scene in our union,” said Molito. “The thing that worked for our union in that space is the community-building: so we’ll have an independent film caucus where people working in isolated situations can get together to talk about their craft, their funders, their problems, and look for solutions collectively."

“And then also the union has a contract that can be negotiated whereby you would be, if you’re the indie game developers and you’re working as a self-owned entity, then you can become a signatory to the union contract and become eligible for health insurance.”

“That’s been a debate because traditionally we’ve seen people organized around craft,” added Shuler. “But for folks who are independent, who aren’t employees, under the National Labor Relations Act, you’re not eligible, I guess, to form a traditional union as an independent contractor. So that’s where we’re seeing these new models take hold, like Uber drivers or the taxi drivers...people who have traditionally been on their own, and who have banded together to negotiate.”

She adds that as the "gig economy" model takes hold and employers are steadily making moves to try and take less responsibility for their workers, “because they don’t want to be employers anymore,” modern labor should be thinking about how to organize on a larger scale than the companies they work for.

“Of course we’re going to fight that, but we also need to figure out a path forward for workers who want to come together in a different way," Shuler continued. "As someone who works independently, you still want to have access to affordable healthcare. You still want to maybe buy a home someday...so I think we’re looking at a model of how we can open up the labor movement’s scale, to leverage that for worker who aren’t necessarily employees.”

“One example from SAG-AFTRA is that choreographers are not considered part of our union,” added Dao. “We do cover dancers, but then the choreographers created their own space...a choreographers' alliance...where they still talk to one another and are actually able to create minimums for each other. So I think there are ways, using this alliance model, to make inroads into organizing and to show solidarity with your colleagues.”

“We know that choreographers have a super specialized skill set, and a lot of them will be in solidarity with the dancers,” added Dao. “And then the choreographers will go to other shows, and if they’re on tour with an artist, and they’ll float these ideas and help organize in that way. So there is that solidarity and that education going on.”

What about user-generated content, or mods? Are players workers?

Agwaze said that it’s tricky to draw the line at who counts as a “game worker” and who doesn’t. In theory, "game workers" is a very broad and inclusive group -- but it makes practical sense to focus on workers employed directly by the game industry while Game Workers U.K. is still trying to expand its foothold.

“Anybody who is involved in the process of making games is, at some level, in the union,” he said. “Whether it’s user-generated content, or modders, or esports players. But the game industry is a big place where it’s hard to get the solidarity you need form all the workers. So until we can get the foothold we need in this industry, we don’t want ot stretch ourselves too hard, and not cover all our bases.”

What about supervisors and leads, the "middle management" who may still be hurt by the company?

“The organizing we’ve been doing since 2015 has all been outside the National Labor Relations Board, which enforces the National Labor Relations Act,” Molito answered.

“In many ways it’s a law set up to prevent people from organizing, so we’ve been organizing outside of it...so people who, under that law, would be seen as managers, they can still join our union...we’ve found it useful to sometimes have people in the union who have more power, and may be able to get more from the company.”

Kinema jumped in to share her own advice, noting that “I think it’s really crucial that when you’re organizing with those types of folks, one I’d say bring them on after you’ve organized many of the base-level workers. And secondly, when you’re organizing, make sure the actual structure of the organization...is taking into account the natural power dynamics that some of these leads, directors, and supervisors tend to have in the company. So they’re not overriding anyone's voice."

In closing out the talk, Shuler wound up encouraging game makers to feel strong and righteous about trying to organize, but not to necessarily go to the negotiating table with a confrontational attitude up front.

“The scenario we see most often is very confrontational,” she explained. “But there are scenarios where employers and managers will work with you to form a union. And they are rare, but we should approach this effort with the rationale that hey, we want to do better. We want to have a seat at the table, we want to be a shareholder, and have a voice….we can’t always assume that management is our enemy. In some cases, middle management benefits when there’s a union in the company.”

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