In this final part, we’ll look at the pros and cons of unionizing in video games and close with some thoughts on what developers can do to protect themselves until the day unionization becomes reality. (ICYMI: Parts I and II laid out the framework and landscape of unionization. Go check them out!)
Pros and Cons of Unionization
The most important benefit of unionization is collective bargaining. The power of numbers is how unions are able to negotiate effectively with employers. This can lead to better wage standards, better compensation for overtime, increased vacation time, better benefits, and maybe even perks for the break room (pinball, anyone?).
This all sounds great, but there are the cons — the reasons why developers are hesitant to unionize. Among those reasons, there are two myths that must be dispelled:
“Unions are not suitable for tech companies”
The argument here is that unions are so bureaucratic that it’s impossible to resolve anything in a timely manner; tech companies need to be agile, so unions will only serve to stifle growth and innovation.
But this position incorrectly assumes that union activity necessarily affects game development. Unions facilitate communications between employees and their employer. In that sense, unions can help address labour issues independent of the studio’s project schedule. As long as everyone is in a collaborative and cooperative mindset, union matters shouldn’t interfere with the work product except in extreme circumstances (i.e., if the employees go on strike).
“Unions will only hurt the games industry”
Some fear that if studios unionize, the company will simply ship jobs overseas where the labour is much cheaper and not unionized. Some also fear that management will retaliate against any employees who want to unionize. But these are both misconceptions.
First off, labour may be cheap and readily available in other countries, but it won’t necessarily have the same skill or vision. There is only so much rudimentary work that can be outsourced. The rest requires creativity and direction that cannot be necessarily replicated by some other shop. And companies are already offloading some work overseas, so having a union would, in fact, help protect existing entry-level positions from vanishing.
Second, an employer, by law, cannot fire, threaten, or otherwise “union bust” their employees. Of course, this doesn’t prevent the awkward “you vs. them” sentiment that might initially loom over a studio during union talks, but there are ways to handle negotiations amicably. An experienced union organizer can help smooth the application process and any subsequent collective bargaining.
Unions may have a future in the industry, but are they the only solution?
The good news is, no!
Unions in the gaming industry are going to take time to take hold, but there are other ways that developers can protect themselves in the meantime. Employment law provides minimum standards and recourse for employees. There are also ways to help yourself. For example, when you get a new employment contract, have someone else take a look before you sign on the dotted line. Even if it’s a friend or family member, they can still give you a gut check and tell you if it seems unfair (or better yet, shoot me a message and I’d be happy to look it over). And if there is harassment or discrimination in the workplace that is not addressed by any of a company’s policies, human rights law may provide grounds for a legal complaint.
It’s also important to stay informed. If you’re looking for resources, there are organizations out there that support unionization but are not unions themselves. Game Workers Unite is an international organization that advocates for workers’ rights in the games industry. Additionally, the Communications Workers of America recently launched the Campaign to Organize Digital Employees initiative to encourage developers to unionize. Both organizations have chapters in Ontario.
Game developers need a mechanism to address issues that are endemic to the industry: churn, crunch, harassment, discrimination… At this point, it’s hard to believe that management isn’t aware of these issues. So, I’ll end on an optimistic note: I hope that as more and more developers who were raised in tough work environments become bosses or start their own studios, they’ll take what they learned and implement policies to create happier workplaces. Happy environments foster good work, so why would any company willingly jeopardize that?
Alex is a Lawyer at Spark LLP. Having joined the firm as its first articling student, Alex spearheads the firm’s video game and esports practice.