Upheaval at Activision Blizzard last year over workplace misconduct sparked an unprecedented level of labor organizing at the Call of Duty publisher. Those actions recently culminated in an ongoing strike and the distribution of union cards, while the misconduct reckoning that precipitated them facilitated Microsoft’s record-breaking planned acquisition of Activision Blizzard. Now the question is whether Xbox will be more receptive to employees’ demands than Bobby Kotick.
When asked about ongoing initiatives by the ABK Workers Alliance in a new interview, head of Xbox, Phil Spencer, who will oversee Activision Blizzard once the sale is complete, said he wasn’t familiar enough with unions to comment.
“I’m going to be honest, I don’t have a lot of personal experience with unions,” he told The Washington Post. “I’ve been at Microsoft for 33 years. So I’m not going to try to come across as an expert on this, but I’ll say we’ll be having conversations about what empowers them to do their best work, which as you can imagine in a creative industry, is the most important thing for us.”
It’s hard to believe that an executive at one of the largest tech companies in the world isn’t familiar with the basics of how collective bargaining works, especially as burgeoning unionization efforts take hold across the country, from negotiation efforts at Google to baristas organizing at a growing number of Starbucks, as well as in gaming.
It’s also the same non-answer Spencer used years ago.
“You know, I’ve been asked this and I always answer and I feel kind of silly in the way I answer, but honestly I have no—I’m not any kind of expert on a union,” Spencer told Kotaku back in 2019 when asked about whether he thinks unions are good for game developers. “I’ve been at Microsoft since I was 20 years old. So I don’t know. I don’t hear that inside. Just being honest.”
He went on:
I’d rather have the conversation [about working conditions] internally, because I think it’s an easy way to do it. And I think we have the environment that we could. And it’s not a conversation that I hear inside of our halls. And as I said, I don’t claim to be an expert of what it means to either work in a union… so if you ask me, ‘Do I think it would make things better or not?’ I honestly don’t know.
It’s a conversation he’ll likely be hearing “inside our walls” soon enough once the Activision Blizzard deal finalizes. His preference for keeping those sorts of conversations internal also isn’t too different from what current Activision Blizzard bosses have been saying.
“[W]e believe that direct dialogue between management and employees is essential to the success of Activision Blizzard,” Activision Blizzard chief administrative officer, and former Donald Trump crony, Brian Bulatao, told workers in an email last month, adding, “there are multiple avenues internally for dialogue, both direct and anonymous.”
But despite Bulatao’s email and now the pending sale, Activision Blizzard workers say they still plan to forge ahead with their current demands, including pay transparency metrics and an audit of company worker policies performed by a “neutral” third-party.
“We remain committed to fighting for workplace improvements and the rights of our employees regardless of who is financially in control of the company,” ABK Workers Alliance wrote on Twitter after the deal was announced. “We will continue to work alongside our allies across the gaming industry to push for measurable change in an industry that desperately needs it.”
One of those efforts includes an ongoing strike now in its seventh week by some Activision Blizzard developers over the decision to lay off 12 quality assurance testers at Raven Software, the studio overseeing Call of Duty: Warzone, a massively popular game plagued by an increasing number of technical issues.
On January 5, Activision Blizzard said in a statement to Gamesindustry.biz that Raven leadership “was engaged in dialogue with its staff” about their concerns, but the ABK Workers Alliance says management has yet to even acknowledge the striking workers’ demands, let alone agree to discuss them.
“Activision Blizzard’s response to its employees’ concerns has been repeated surveillance, intimidation tactics, and the hiring of notorious union busters,” president Christopher M. Shelton of the Communication Workers of America, which is assisting Activision Blizzard workers with their organizing, told Polygon in a statement. “Activision Blizzard worker concerns must be addressed in any plan — acquisition or not — on the future direction of the company.”
Working conditions for QA testers at Activision Blizzard have been notoriously bad in the past, but it’s a particularly precarious job to be in throughout the rest of tech as well, including at Microsoft. 38 contract bug testers at the company famously organized a union back in 2014, winning the right to negotiate a contract with temp agency Lionbridge Technologies who they were hired through. Instead Lionbridge laid them all off, while Microsoft feigned ignorance of the whole matter.
The National Labor Relations Board wasn’t convinced, however, and as Bloomberg later reported, subpoenaed records from Microsoft that showed its managers worked closely with, and in the same office as, the bug testers they oversaw. The deployment of a drop in testing demand as a rationale to lay off the unionized contractors was also disputed. But by then the union was dissolved and the testers were financially strapped and ready to settle the complaint.
2014, the year the bug testers unionized, also happened to be the same one Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella announced Spencer would take over as head of Xbox.
Microsoft, Activision Blizzard, and ABK Workers Alliance did not immediately respond to a request for comment.