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Going against Big Tech’s anti-union grain, Microsoft is making good on its promise of “neutrality”

Microsoft’s hands-off stance on unionization efforts is facing its biggest litmus test

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Microsoft isn’t getting in the way of video game testers unionizing.
Microsoft isn’t getting in the way of video game testers unionizing.
Photo: Charley Gallay (Getty Images)

Microsoft’s hands-off stance on unionization efforts is facing its biggest litmus test—and the company seems to be coming out on top.

Nearly 300 quality assurance workers for ZeniMax Online Studios are voting to join the Communication Workers of America (CWA), the largest communications and media union in the country that counts over 700,000 members.

Some workers across four locations in Maryland and Texas have already been signing union authorization cards, and starting Friday (Dec. 2), employees began voting on unionization efforts anonymously through an online platform, the New York Times reported. Voting will go on for a month.

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So far, Microsoft has remained neutral toward the union and the company is “providing clear guidance to managers on neutrality,” Code-CWA tweeted Monday (Dec. 5). The Zenimax union-in-the-making, which represents workers from several studios, including The Elder Scrolls and Fallout maker Bethesda‚ said the same.

If the vote passes, it’ll be a landmark win for more than one reason: It would create the largest video game industry union in the US, and the first official US union under Microsoft.

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Microsoft did not respond to Quartz’s request for comment at the time of publishing. Overall, Activision has about 7,000 employees in the country, most of whom are eligible to unionize.

Why video game workers want to unionize, by the digits

Zenimax’s laundry list of what it wants to negotiate—fair wages, opportunities for advancement, accountability and transparency, as well as a voice in decision making around scheduling, workload and more—is not an anomaly. The International Game Developers Association’s 2021 Developer Satisfaction Survey reveal a similar set of complaints, from grueling working conditions to stunted career growth to discrimination, plague the video game workforce on the whole:

35%: Employees who worked “crunch” periods, where people are made to work longer shifts on weekdays and several hours on the weekends, sometimes for weeks in a row, and without pay that makes up for it. (Legally, computer professionals who earn cross an annual salary threshold—it varies from state to state—are considered exempt from overtime laws.)

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32%: Employees who worked “longer hours” but just didn’t call it crunch

58%: Share of those among employees who “crunched” who’d done it more than twice in the previous year

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32%: Employees who did not receive extra compensation for crunch or overtime

47%: Those who thought crunch was normal or a part of the job

29%: Employees who thought career advancement chances were “fair” or “poor”

56%: Respondents who perceived inequity towards themselves

71%: Respondents who perceived inequity towards others based on gender, age, ethnicity, ability, or sexual orientation.

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Microsoft’s “neutrality” towards unions and its Activision Blizzard deal

Typically, tech giants try to quash unions. E-commerce behemoth Amazon keeps intimidating voters against organizing, and it won’t stop pushing back even on a successful union vote. When it comes to union-busting, Apple has been accused of leveraging illegal tactics.

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On the contrary, Microsoft is playing nice. But it’s not entirely altruistic. It’s likely a bid to convince the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) to greenlight its nearly $70 billion purchase of embattled video game firm Activision Blizzard.

At the start of June, XBox boss Phil Spencer recognized the union vote by two dozen employees at Call of Duty’s Raven Software—the first union at a major video game studio.

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The same month, Microsoft entered a “labor neutrality agreement” with CWA, vowing to not deter union efforts at Activision. The agreement will go into effect 60 days after the acquisition (if it does).

Currying favor from a politically powerful union that was among the vocal critics of the Microsoft-Activision deal has yielded some benefits, as the CWA now advocates in favor of the acquisition. Its president, Chris Shelton, met with the FTC chairperson to urge regulators not to block the deal.

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Looking out for workers in the Microsoft-Activision deal

Before the neutrality agreement:

“Before any approval of this proposed deal, the Department of Justice, Federal Trade Commission, and states Attorneys General must all carefully consider the impacts on consumers and American workers, especially Activision Blizzard employees who have been trying to improve working conditions and raising up troubling issues regarding company culture of sexist and discriminatory cultural practices, pay inequity, workplace harassment, and abuse.” —CWA president Christopher M. Shelton on Jan. 18, 2022

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After the neutrality agreement:

“Our neutrality agreement with Microsoft is different from other behavioral remedies which have often been tossed aside by companies as soon as the ink was dry on their deals. This is a structural solution, creating a pathway for workers to organize and exercise their true bargaining strength, altering power relations in the labor context but also potentially empowering thousands of consumer-minded watchdogs inside the company. And it’s enforceable through a legally binding agreement.” —Shelton in a May. 12 op-ed for The Hill, urging the FTC to clear the merger.

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Another day, another union

On Dec. 2, Activision workers in Albany voted 14-0 in favor of unionizing with CWA, adding another union to Microsoft’s roster should the deal go through.

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