The US National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) ruled yesterday that 21 QA staff at Blizzard Albany, formerly known as Vicarious Visions, could go ahead with a planned vote to unionise, the Washington Post reports (opens in new tab).
The NLRB ruling was made necessary after parent company Activision Blizzard took issue with the QA staff's plans. Activision argued that all 88 staff currently working on Diablo games at Blizzard Albany should get a vote in the unionisation process, rather than just 21 members of the QA team. Labour experts that spoke to the Post described this move as a tactic to, in effect, water down enthusiasm for unionisation in the voting pool and diminish the vote's chances of succeeding.
Activision has also drawn criticism in the past for its hiring of Reed Smith, a law firm specialising in "union avoidance (opens in new tab)" techniques, despite a pledge to negotiate with unionising staff "in good faith (opens in new tab)". Reed Smith's training documents have described unions as exploiting "Lazy, non-productive, or inefficient" employees (opens in new tab), "Whiner and complainer" types, and workers with a "something-for-nothing attitude".
The NLRB dismissed Activision's arguments against allowing the Blizzard Albany QA staff to proceed with a unionisation vote, noting that the low pay of the QA team ($41,995 a year) relative to other staff at the studio made them notably different from other staff working on Diablo 4. The board also dismissed Activision's argument that staff working on different games—some of the 21 QA staff work on Diablo 2 Resurrected, some on Diablo 4, and one works on WoW—shouldn't belong to the same bargaining unit.
A statement given to the Post by Activision Blizzard spokesman Rich George says that, while Activision respects the NLRB process, the company disagrees "that a decision that could significantly impact the future of the entire Albany-based Diablo team should be made by just a handful of employees". The statement notes that, owing to the "tightly integrated operations" at Blizzard Albany, all "eligible non-supervisory employees there should have a voice and be allowed to vote, not just the approximately 20 quality assurance testers picked by the union".
Activision gave a very similar message to employees in the company's Slack (opens in new tab), adding that the company prefers a "streamlined process" and "direct communication" over the "comparatively slow" process of union negotiation. This is a very common line used by companies facing unionisation efforts: it was even used practically word-for-word (opens in new tab) by Amazon CEO Andy Jassy in regard to unionising warehouses back in May this year.
Union vote ballots will be sent to the relevant Blizzard Albany employees on October 27, with a voting deadline set for November 17. The count will take place the following day, November 18, via video conference.
Activision's had a tough time from the NLRB recently: the Board ruled earlier this month (opens in new tab) that the company had withheld raises from unionising Raven QA staff as an act of retaliation. Activision denies that, though, saying that offering raises to staff in the middle of a union vote would be a violation of labour law.
Plus, of course, all of this is happening while countries around the world scrutinise Microsoft's $68 billion purchase (opens in new tab) of Activision earlier this year, with Brazil the most recent country to wave the deal through (opens in new tab). With that deal underway and the company's already-grim past failings (opens in new tab) regarding its internal culture, Activision is probably none too thrilled about the PR bruise this newest NLRB ruling represents.