As the European Commission prepares for a hearing this week on the competition implications of the pending merger between Microsoft and Activision Blizzard (ABK), UNI Global Union is calling on regulators to consider the impact the tie-up would have on the labour market, as well as consumers.
“We know that the commission is focusing on the effect the deal will have on consumers, but it cannot ignore the role this deal would have in making the video game labour market fairer for workers,” said Christy Hoffman, General Secretary of UNI Global Union. “This is an industry where workers are crushed by excessive hours and low pay while facing sexual harassment and discrimination. It is an industry that needs an expansion of worker protections, and Microsoft’s commitment to labour rights will help make that happen.”
While the combined Microsoft and ABK could have increased market power over workers, potentially worsening labour monopsony, a ground-breaking agreement to facilitate collective bargaining is a strong remedy that would mean workers are better off if this transaction is completed. Since announcing the proposed deal, Microsoft has signed a neutrality agreement that would cover ABK’s thousands of employees with US-based UNI affiliate the Communications Workers of America (CWA). The agreement is the only one of its kind in the tech and video game industries and commits Microsoft to voluntarily recognize unions at the merged company and respect freedom of association free from harassment and intimidation. Beyond its agreement with CWA, Microsoft has publicly pledged to honour all employees’ right to join a union.
UNI’s 2022 survey of video game workers in 29 countries found serious problems in the sector. Low pay was the most cited issue among respondents reporting one or more workplace issues (66%.) Among those working in Europe, this rate was even higher (77%). A significant number of female and non-binary respondents reported that gender discrimination is an issue in their workplace. Nearly half of women (46%) and 43 per cent of non-binary respondents who identified issues in their workplaces reported gender discrimination.
“Collective bargaining is a way to remedy possible negative consequences of a merger on the labour market, and it is also necessary to fix problems that are existing in the industry,” said Hoffman. “We know that the union difference is a more democratic workplace, higher pay and greater equality.”
In many countries, like the United States, forming a union without a commitment of neutrality is nearly impossible. There are strong anti-union campaigns at companies like ABK, where workers are forced to attend meetings in which management spread anti-union propaganda. Union activists and representatives are routinely fired with impunity, making it difficult for workers to fairly choose to exercise their right to join a union. While there are greater legal protections around workers forming unions in Europe, workers struggle to organize despite the serious workplace issues in the video games industry with only a handful of unions recognized by video games companies in the region.
Recent worker organizing efforts at ABK have been met by management campaigns against unionization. The union has brought several charges about illegal behaviour to the US federal government.
In contrast, quality assurance testers at Microsoft subsidiary ZeniMax studios have organized a union this year. The union was recognized in accordance with the labour neutrality agreement. There are almost no other organized gaming workers in the United States.
“UNI has consistently stood against monopolies and the consolidation of corporate power at working people’s expense,” said UNI’s Hoffman. “But in this instance, we have weighed the larger social impacts on workers and the labour market, and we are asking the commission to do the same.”