Calls to unionize the game development industry aren't new—the "EA Spouse" controversy dates back to 2004—but the effort has picked up steam over the past several months, driven by stories of "death march" crunch and abusive working conditions at major studios.
Game Workers Unite UK became the country's first videogame industry union when it joined the Independent Workers Union of Great Britain in late 2018, and now the American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations, the largest federation of unions in North America, has weighed in with an open letter sent to Kotaku that calls on game developers "to demand a stake in your industry and a say in your economic future."
The AFL-CIO letter, from secretary-treasurer Liz Shuler, comes just a few days after Activision laid off nearly 800 employees at the same time as it reported record-setting revenues for 2018. It doesn't mention those layoffs specifically but it does name CEO Bobby Kotick and his Electronic Arts counterpart, Andrew Wilson.
"Executives are always quick to brag about your work. It’s the talk of every industry corner office and boardroom. They pay tribute to the games that capture our imaginations and seem to defy economic gravity. They talk up the latest innovations in virtual reality and celebrate record-smashing releases, as your creations reach unparalleled new heights," Shuler wrote.
"My question is this: what have you gotten in return? While you’re putting in crunch time, your bosses are ringing the opening bell on Wall Street. While you’re creating some of the most groundbreaking products of our time, they’re pocketing billions. While you’re fighting through exhaustion and putting your soul into a game, Bobby Kotick and Andrew Wilson are toasting to 'their' success."
Shuler also made a specific reference to Red Dead Redemption 2: "Developers at Rockstar Games recently shared stories of crunch time that lasted for months and even years in order to satisfy outrageous demands from management, delivering a game that banked their bosses $725 million in its first three days."
The AFL-CIO was formed in 1955, and currently represents nearly 13 million members in unions including the Actors' Equity Association, the Brotherhood of Railroad Signalmen, Gay and Lesbian Labor Activists Network, the UAW, United Steelworkers, the NFL Players Association, the International Union of Police Associations, and Glass, Molders, Pottery, Plastics and Allied Workers International Union. It's also associated with the Brussels-based International Trade Union Confederation, the world's largest trade union federation.
It is a powerful organization, in other words, and the letter makes no bones about where it stands. "No matter where you work, bosses will only offer fair treatment when you stand together and demand it. Fortunately, the groundwork is already being laid as grassroots groups like Game Workers Unite embrace the power of solidarity and prove that you don’t have to accept a broken, twisted status quo," Shuler wrote.
"Your fight is our fight, and we look forward to welcoming you into our union family. Whether we’re mainlining caffeine in Santa Monica, clearing tables in Chicago or mining coal in West Virginia, we deserve to collect nothing less than the full value of our work."