As Microsoft's $70b takeover of Activision nears, workers step up their organizing

This week: Subsidiary's QA staff officially unionize, $18m settlement disputed, and more


Current and former Activision Blizzard staff are stepping up their organizing and pressure campaigns on execs as the video-game giant tries to close its $68.7bn acquisition by Microsoft.

Firstly, QA workers at Raven Software – a studio based in Wisconsin that develops the popular first-person shooter series Call of Duty – successfully voted to officially unionize against parent biz Activision. Secondly, a former employee appealed Activision's proposed $18 million settlement with America's Equal Employment Opportunity Commission regarding claims of "sex-based discrimination" and "harassment" of female staff at the corporation. 

Finally, a group of current and ex-Activision employees have formed a Worker Committee Against Sex and Gender Discrimination to try and improve the company's internal sexual harassment policies. All three events occurred this week, and show how Activision is still grappling with internal revolt as it pushes ahead for Microsoft's takeover. 

Over at Raven, QA staff formed the Game Workers Alliance, backed by the Communications Workers of America (CWA), after Activision said in December it would ax 12 software testers by the following month. Sixty staff members walked off in protest at the cuts, and a five-week strike ensued. The alliance asked to be voluntarily recognized as a union by Activision and was denied, and so it took the matter to a formal vote.

That election, ratified by the National Labor Relations Board on Monday, passed with 19 QA staff voting to unionize, three voting against it, and two votes were contested, we're told. This union, as a bargaining unit, will cover 28 quality-assurance workers at the studio.

"Five months ago, we formed the Game Workers Alliance-CWA on the principles of solidarity, sustainability, transparency, equity, and diversity," the alliance said in a canned statement.

"Activision Blizzard worked tirelessly to undermine our efforts to establish our union, but we persevered.

"Our biggest hope is that our union serves as inspiration for the growing movement of workers organizing at video game studios to create better games and build workplaces that reflect our values and empower all of us. We look forward to working with management to positively shape our working conditions and the future of Activision Blizzard through a strong union contract."

Activision has a week to recognize the union or appeal the election vote. Microsoft has apparently said it would recognize the union if Activision did. A spokesperson from the company told us in a statement: "We respect and believe in the right of all employees to decide whether or not to support or vote for a union. We believe that an important decision that will impact the entire Raven Software studio of roughly 350 people should not be made by 19 Raven employees."

Next, the settlement objection

Complaints of Activision's toxic "frat boy" culture were investigated by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. Top management was accused of fostering a workplace that was unfair to female and pregnant employees.

After a three-year probe, the EEOC sued Activision claiming it enforced of "sex-based discrimination, including harassment," and paid women less than their male colleagues. Activision settled the case, and agreed to pay $18 million to current and former workers who have been or were employed since 2016 affected as the EEOC claimed.

But lawyers representing one former worker, Jessica Gonzales, filed an objection [PDF] to the settlement. Gonzales said the $18 million compensation was inadequate, and that no more than 60 workers could receive the maximum settlement allowed. Thousands of workers that were affected by Activision's work culture are ineligible to receive compensation, it's claimed. 

"The court allowed Activision and the EEOC to keep the affected workers and others who had an interest in holding the company accountable out of the process," Gonzalez said in a statement. "Eligible employees should not have to give up their right to pursue other legal remedies if they accept the settlement."

Her objection calls for the courts to hold a full fairness hearing into the matter.

An Activision spokesperson blasted attempts to delay payments to workers. "This week's appeal continues efforts by CWA and the California Department of Fair Employment and Housing (DFEH) to interfere with and delay an $18 million settlement that benefits eligible employees. This is the tenth attempt. It is unfortunate that DFEH – both directly and through those working with it – continues the campaign of misinformation and inaccurate claims," the spokesperson told The Register

And the anti-discrimination committee

Longtime CEO Bobby Kotick previously apologized for employees' bad behavior at work and vowed to stamp it out. "I am sorry that anyone had to experience inappropriate conduct, and I remain unwavering in my commitment to make Activision Blizzard one of the world's most inclusive, respected, and respectful workplaces," he said late last year. "We thank the EEOC for its constructive engagement as we work to fulfill our commitments to eradicate inappropriate conduct in the workplace."

But some today believe the company still isn't doing enough. A group of former and current employees announced it had formed the Worker Committee Against Sex and Gender Discrimination to try and change the company's sexual harassment policies. 

"We believe it is imperative that workers have a voice in Activision Blizzard's anti-discrimination policies – without that, the company's culture of harassment and abuse will continue to go unchecked," Emily Knief, a senior motion graphic designer at the company, said.

"We hope to have a productive conversation with leadership where they acknowledge these growing concerns and enact the demands brought forth by the committee." 

The committee has called for Activision to end all mandatory arbitration, which would allow employees to take the company and coworkers to court for sexual harassment if they so choose. It also wants the corp to hire independent, third-party investigators to probe cases, as well as install a better internal support network for employees who identify as trans, and private rooms for women to breastfeed babies and pump milk. 

"We appreciate that these employees want to join with us to further build a better Activision Blizzard and continue the progress we have already made," an Activision spokesperson told The Register in a statement.

"We have, for example, already upgraded our lactation facilities, waived arbitration, hired new DEI and EEO leaders, and collaborated with employees to make our policies and processes more Trans inclusive, just to name a few issues the letter raises. We thank these employees, and will continue to work with all of our employees on our journey to be a better company." ®

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