Blizzard QA testers in Albany want to unionize

Activision Blizzard's Raven Software QA testers formed the gaming giant's first formally recognized union in May, but that momentum hasn't died down at the massive company. Today, Blizzard QA testers in Albany announced that they are forming a union with the Game Workers Alliance and Communications Workers of America (CWA), the same groups behind the Raven Software union.

“There are issues in the video game industry that often go unaddressed because our work is considered a passion instead of a job," Blizzard Albany associate test analyst Amanda Laven said in a statement. "Quality assurance workers deserve fair treatment and proper compensation for the work we do which is why we chose to form a union."

QA testers are responsible for identifying and removing bugs or glitches in a game, making sure that the user experience is as smooth as possible. But when a game is on its way to release, QA testers are often subjected to "crunch" conditions, requiring them to work extremely long hours to make sure the product is ready.

"We get marginalized and thought of as a number, but we are key to any game that is out there," Blizzard Albany associate test analyst Brock Davis told TechCrunch.

The issue of crunch among QA testers became increasingly noticeable when Raven Software workers, who mostly work on the Call of Duty franchise, began their campaign for better working conditions in December. After five weeks of consistent overtime work, 12 contract workers in the QA department were laid off, prompting a walkout of over five weeks. This culminated in the announcement that Raven Software's QA testers would attempt to form the first union at a major U.S. gaming company. After much pushback and legal disputes from their massive parent company, the movement succeeded, but they have not yet signed a union contract with their employer.

Davis told TechCrunch that out of 20 employees, all but one have signed on to join the union. That gives the unit a supermajority with 95% approval. To earn formal union recognition and the right to good faith bargaining with Activision Blizzard, they need to win over 50% of votes in a formal election with the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB). Based on current support for the union, that goal seems well within reach. While Blizzard acknowledged its Albany QA testers' desire to unionize, the company hasn't honored their request for recognition.

Microsoft, which is slated to acquire Activision Blizzard for $68.7 billion, has committed to a labor neutrality agreement, meaning that the company won't intentionally stand in the way of employees' attempts to form unions. Meanwhile, Activision Blizzard tried to block the Raven Software QA union by petitioning to the NLRB board that an individual department couldn't unionize on its own; the NLRB denied that appeal. The gaming company, which isn't officially part of Microsoft yet, has not committed to these same gestures of good faith. This agreement between Microsoft and the CWA will only take effect 60 days after the acquisition of Activision Blizzard closes, which could still be several months away.

All 20 Blizzard Albany QA testers are full-time employees with benefits. In April, amid increased public pressure and scrutiny, the company converted about 1,100 QA contractors to full-time staffers and increased the minimum wage to $20 per hour.

Davis said that Blizzard Albany's QA testers became interested in forming a union last year, when Activision Blizzard was sued by a California state agency over claims of sexual harassment and discrimination. The agency had investigated the company for two years and declared that it fostered a "frat boy" culture at work. Months later, a Wall Street Journal report revealed that CEO Bobby Kotick reportedly knew for years about sexual misconduct and rape allegations at his company, but he did not act.

"We said, 'This isn't what we want our industry to be,'" Davis told TechCrunch.

On the anniversary of the California agency's lawsuit against their employer, some Activision Blizzard employees are planning a walkout for this Thursday, July 21 in solidarity with their movement.