Union Accuses Game Studio Of “Union-Busting”; Studio Denies Employee Was Disciplined For Activism

The UK’s Independent Workers Union accused Monument Valley and Assemble With Care studio Ustwo Games of “union-busting” in a statement today. Threatening legal action, the report alleges that senior Ustwo programmer Austin Kelmore—also the branch chair and founding member of the union’s Game Workers Unite branch—suffered “victimization” and “unfair dismissal” because of his union actions.

Ustwo denied these allegations in a statement this morning, which several current employees retweeted.

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Ustwo Games is a mobile game studio based in London. Recently, the team released Apple Arcade game Assemble With Care, which Kotaku described as a “melancholy adventure in stuff repair.” Kelmore, a main programmer on that game, has been extremely active with Game Workers Unite, a labor initiative advocating for better working conditions in the games industry. (Game Workers Unite UK is a branch of the Independent Workers Union of Great Britain.)

According to the report from IWGB, Ustwo’s human resources department took issue with Kelmore’s focus on “company feedback, diversity schemes and working practices,” reads a cited email from Ustwo HR in October 2018. The email also claimed that “It feels that Austin is a self-appointed bastion of change and sometimes speaks on behalf of others.” A senior manager questioned Kelmore about his union activities, according to the report, which also criticizes Ustwo for not giving Kelmore access to a union rep in a disciplinary meeting. ([Update—12:55 pm ET]: The union rep reached out to clarify that Kelmore did not have access to a union rep, as is his legal right, because he did not know the initial meeting was disciplinary in nature. Kotaku has clarified the article’s language to reflect this.) Kelmore was subsequently put on “gardening leave,” the UK’s term for a notice period, pending dismissal.

A statement from GWU UK secretary Jamie Cross reads:

“Despite Ustwo’s claims of being as much a family as it is a company, it has decided to leave Austin, one of its best developers, completely orphaned. Austin and his family are not only left without their main source of income, but also unsure if they will have to uproot their whole lives and leave the country in a few weeks. The union will not stand idly by in the face of this unlawful and vicious act, and is determined to fight back until this decision is reversed, either voluntarily or through the courts.”

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Reached over Twitter direct messages, Kelmore declined to comment for this article.

Ustwo claims that Kelmore was dismissed “for reasons unconnected to his membership of a trade union or his undertaking of trade union activities” in a statement posted to Twitter this morning. Ustwo says that they have other union-affiliated employees, adding that the IWGB’s statement contained “inaccuracies and omissions . . . which are misleading.” Retweeting the statement, Assemble With Care lead developer Matt Newcombe said, “It breaks my heart to see the reaction given to a misconstrued situation that people are only hearing one side of, it does not reflect the reality.”

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Reached over the phone, an IWGB representative told Kotaku that Ustwo’s statement is “obviously ridiculous. What we said was completely true, otherwise we wouldn’t have said it.” They pointed out that Ustwo didn’t say what specifically was inaccurate or omitted. When Kotaku asked whether IWGB had any bias toward Kelmore’s account, as he’s a GWU UK founding member, the representative said that that fact “makes his dismissal more egregious.” The representative would not share where the information in the IWGB’s report was sourced from. (Kotaku has reached out to several employees in hopes of verifying the account.)

The union has given Ustwo until October 4 to take back their decision before they initiate legal proceedings.

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