At the beginning of 2020, the Communications Workers of America Union announced a new initiative dedicated to the tech and video game industry. Called the Campaign to Organize Digital Employees [CODE], CODE-CWA looks to unite organizations in both industries under one banner, becoming a force to tackle industry-wide issues like crunch culture and pay.
The CWA said in its statement announcing the initiative, "Tech and game companies' meteoric growth in recent years has been accompanied by growing concerns around workers' rights and workplace conditions, including the disconnect between the companies' stated values and the societal impact of the technology. CODE-CWA will provide resources for workers who are joining together to demand change."
Reading that statement, I realized I didn't know how a game industry-dedicated union operated. How would it recruit new members? How would it support existing members against crunch and a lack of pay? To answer these questions, I spoke to CODE-CWA campaign lead Emma Kinema, a nine-year veteran of the games industry who also co-founded Game Workers Unite, another organization dedicated to unionizing the games industry.
Tackling Recruitment and Crunch Culture
One thing Kinema cleared up was that CODE-CWA looks to unite existing organizations under one banner. "After the founding of Game Workers Unite, CWA started reaching out to various chapters and different members," she told me. "There was a small delegation of game workers who attended the 2019 CWA convention." CODE-CWA was born from a lot of the conversations and relationships that have been built in the industry from that convention in 2019.
So how does CODE-CWA go about recruiting new members? It turns out they don't even have to. "I'll be honest, we don't really have to do a whole lot of recruitment because we have people reaching out to us, asking how best to organize and how to start making changes in the workplace," Kinema tells me.
Shout out to the tech and game industry workers organizing w/ @CODE_CWA and @GameWorkers for taking a stand with #TechAgainstICE, fighting for gender equity, and improving working conditions in gaming + tech! https://t.co/b18ecJMbTI- Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (@AOC) January 16, 2020
Crunch culture is an industry-wide plague. It's hard not to wonder how a games industry union like CODE-CWA would handle such a widespread issue should it affect any of their members. Kinema explains, "So there are all kinds of different options for the worker to pick from, it really depends on the specific needs and situations of the workers are at any given shop."
Kinema stresses that a key factor is "not necessarily responding to each individual thing that frustrates workers with a consistent action." Instead, CODE-CWA would rather use that "as one of many issues that workers care about and are impacted by and using that to fuel larger scale contracts and union elections, where you could eventually get to collective bargaining with the employer." It's less about solving individual situations, and more about change for larger crowds.
USgamer has staff spread out across North America and Europe. As someone working outside of America, I asked Kinema if there was any prejudices from game industry workers against joining a union. "Sure, there's your pretty typical kinda concerns from having past bad experiences with unions at other jobs, from the real atmosphere of anti-union in American culture. Something more common is people thinking, yeah, it'd be great to have a union, it'd be good to organize and fix some things, but people are worried or anxious about retaliation or pressure from their bosses against such an effort, so that can be kinda intimidating. But that boss retaliation is something that can definitely be prepared for and organized around, and folks can get through it definitely."
Can the Majority of the Games Industry Ever be Unionized?
I asked Kinema the obvious: Could she see a future where the majority of the games industry are members of unions? "Yeah I definitely can see that future, it's one where so many people, professional organizers are working hard across North America to build that future," Kinema replies.
"It's one that will take a lot of time and a lot of energy. And when I say a lot of time I really mean it, because for folks who aren't familiar, you could be organizing a small coffee shop with several employees, and that might take a couple weeks or months or somewhere around that ballpark," she goes on. "But if you're organizing, say, a 30 person grocery store, that could take you months or maybe even upwards of a year. So when you think about massive corporations with hundreds, sometimes thousands, of employees, these things take a very long time.".
It's a difficult road, but it's a future that Kinema, and CODE-CWA, are working towards. "So it's not I think in the near future in terms of having the vast majority of the industry organized, but I think the main challenge now is really getting to the first couple of public successful organized campaigns," Kinema says. "Because once you get to that point, once you break that first hurdle, a lot of people will see that progress and see everything gained from those campaigns for the workers, and will point to that and say 'oh shoot that looks good we should do that too'."