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Union I

The State of the Union(ization): What is a Union?

Last week, the guys and gals at Kickstarter became the first group of employees at a major tech company to unionize. The lawyer in me was interested in how that worked legally. But the human in me (yes, some lawyers are humans too) was much more interested in the commentary that Kickstarter unionizing could be the impetus the video game industry needs to unionize as well. After being a long-time lurker of the unionization debate, I figured it was about time to be a first-time poster.

The idea of unionizing the video games industry has been brewing for years. Every so often, these unionization discussions hit the media: horrific layoffs of unprotected employees by major studios, the momentous unionization talk at GDC 2018, and most recently, the formation of Kickstarter United. Behind these stories are advocates who have been working for quite some time to push developers to unionize.

Wanting to unionize is often an indicator of an imbalance or unfairness felt by employees. In the games industry, two C’s afflict studios and give rise to feelings of inequality: churn and crunch. Churn is a problem when employees are not given adequate notice, or insufficiently compensated upon termination, while crunch is a problem when there are no hourly caps or overtime pay. Both lead to burnout and skilled individuals leaving the industry. A potential solution to these problems is unionization.  

What is a union, exactly?

Unionization is a much more complex topic than can be captured in a single blog post. So in this first part, we’ll start by explaining what a union is and the process of unionizing a workplace.

A union is an organized group of employees that collectively negotiate, or bargain, with their employer to set workplace conditions. Items that can be negotiated include wages, hours, overtime pay, benefits, insurance, and rights upon termination (notice period, severance, etc.).

At the end of negotiations, the union and employer come to a collective agreement, which puts in writing the conditions agreed upon by the parties. These conditions improve upon the minimum standards required by employment law. Changes to the agreement can only be made after going through this collective bargaining process.

Most employees can join a union. Just because your employer says you cannot unionize does not mean they’re right. However, you may not join if you have managerial responsibilities (ex. hiring/firing ability, granting wages or promotions, etc.). Also, certain professions (ex. lawyers and physicians) may not unionize.

How to unionize

How a workplace unionizes is different in every country. In Canada, each province has its own rules on how to unionize, in addition to what’s set out in federal labour laws. Here are the basics on how to unionize in Ontario:

How to unionize Ontario

This explanation only scratches the surface, but hopefully it makes the subject of unionization a little less intimidating.

If you need help finding a union that’s right for your workplace, check out the Canadian Labour Congress.

And if you want to get a sense of what existing collective agreements look like, the Ontario government keeps a database of agreements that you can browse.

Stay tuned for Part II…

Alexandria Chun

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. 

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