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Unionization Now?

March 22, 2005 Article Start Page 1 of 2 Next

When EA_Spouse posted her now-famous open letter regarding working conditions at Electronic Arts, it wasn't as if no one had ever complained before about the quality-of-life issues plaguing the game development community.

But she brought the discussions into the open, notes Rusty Rueff, EA's executive vice president of human resources, and that, he says, is a good thing. "Maybe I'm old-fashioned," he told Game Developer, "but I think it's cathartic when people have a chance to get something off their chest. And obviously, in our industry, how we work is something that people need to talk about."

Indeed, EA_Spouse says her goal was to break the ice, to get developers talking. They are, however, talking about more than just convincing management that conditions need to improve. There's now a buzz in the industry about unionizing - and it's getting louder.

Many industry observers see close parallels between the gripes of today's game developers and those of workers in the movie industry in the 1930s and '40s, particularly in the animation segment. The difference is that Hollywood unionized, and the game industry is still only talking about it.

Hollywood does it - but should game developers organize, too?

Who Controls Hollywood?

Tara McPherson

"What you saw in Hollywood's studio era was a lot of independent producers who slowly consolidated into a few key players - we call them the Five Majors - who gained a monopolistic control over distribution," describes Tara McPherson, chair of the University of Southern California Cinema School, Critical Studies division.

"They pretty much set the policy within the industry, decided what kind of product would be made, the rates that would be paid, and whether you'd have the opportunity to get your movie distributed to theaters," she says. "I see that being replayed pretty dramatically in the game industry. In just the last few years, the number of small, independent game production companies in Los Angeles alone has plummeted. The possibility of distributing an independently-produced game without connection to some bigger player is almost nil."

As time went on, Hollywood workers found themselves powerless to bargain with managers on the amount of pay they received and the hours they worked, and turned to unions like the Screen Actors Guild and the Writers Guild of America to represent them in negotiations. But it was a slow transition, says McPherson, because white-collar workers, like screen writers and editors - and game programmers and artists - see themselves as different from factory workers and are often reluctant to consider unionization.

"Oddly enough, the Hollywood managers and studio executives made very much the same arguments as the Electronic Arts executives are making right now: that unions are for people who do dirty work and that they result in a kind of group-think that destroys individual creativity and the ability to negotiate your own wages," McPherson says. "But I would argue that the Hollywood unions were absolutely essential to the workers having decent jobs."

McPherson believes the same is true of the game industry - that the big game publishers aren't going to "benevolently change today's abysmal work conditions without pressure. They will make small changes, but not much else, if the threat of unionization seems real."

And Microsoft Begat WashTech…

Unions are, in fact, eyeing the game development community, and the Seattle-based Washington Alliance of Technology Workers makes no bones about it. WashTech, as it is known, is a local of the Communications Workers of America, having been formed seven years ago by contract workers hired by Microsoft through temp agencies, who at the time comprised more than 50 percent of the software giant's local workforce.

One of those workers was Marcus Courtney, a contract test engineer, now president of WashTech.

"You could work for years without being converted to full-time employee status," says Courtney, "which meant you'd never have any job security or decent benefits. And, in the mid-'90s, Microsoft was pretty much the only game in town for tech workers."

When Microsoft lobbied for changes in overtime standards - employees who made at least $27.63 per hour were ineligible for time-and-a-half - it sparked a spontaneous email protest to the state government and, ultimately, the launch of WashTech.

Now, seven years later, Courtney claims that the big game companies are trying to limit their employees' conversations about wages and working conditions. He's reaching out to them via online forums and job boards "to tell them the advantages of joining a union and what we have to offer because not a lot of white-collar workers understand the union process." He claims that while his is the first union dedicated to representing high-tech employees, he wouldn't be surprised if other unions, like the Screen Actors Guild, the American Federation of Television and Radio Artists, and the International Federation of Professional and Technical Engineers, started making similar efforts.

Complications and Consequences

Adam Levin

But there are those who argue that unions may not achieve the goals of game developers, and one of those people is Adam Levin, an attorney who practices labor law at the Los Angeles-based firm of Mitchell, Silberberg, and Knupp. He most often represents employers in the movie industry.

"While there are perceived benefits to unionization, it's very important for employees to recognize the tangible consequences of bringing in a labor union," he warns. "They may include the rejection of union proposals by employers, the possibility of strikes, increased production costs that may lead to runaway production work - which could mean layoffs - plus the expense of union dues and initiation fees."

Levin calls EA_Spouse's open letter to the industry a wakeup call to employers to re-examine working conditions, particularly crunch times, "which used to be sporadic and more recently have extended to a kind of crunching throughout the year."

"It's always my advice to employers that they should have an open door with their employees to [let them air their] grievances and to always try to address those grievances," he recommends. "The wise manager will recognize that working out an amicable resolution with employees is the preferred route to either litigation or unionization."

Levin cautions that unionization frequently means increased labor costs, which does no one any good. "If a publisher's labor costs go up in such a way that it can no longer make a profit, it will have great difficulties with its shareholders. If it needs to pass those costs along to, say, Wal-Mart [as a retail channel] and, in turn, to the consumer, I suggest that neither one will accept those increases. As a result, game makers may end up going out of business or moving work to Canada or Europe where unions are less of a factor, and then there will certainly be layoffs. So everyone needs to be aware that, with increased labor costs, which are inevitable when you have a union, there are going to be consequences."

Article Start Page 1 of 2 Next

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