Technology

Labor board says Activision withheld raises from union activists

The National Labor Relations Board has investigated and found that video game titan Activision Blizzard withheld raises from quality assurance testers at its subsidiary Raven Software, and that it attributed the withholding to the testers’ union activity. Activision Blizzard is currently in union bargaining negotiations with quality assurance testers who voted to unionize earlier this year at Raven, which works on Call of Duty titles in Madison, Wis.

Following the NLRB’s findings, Activision Blizzard and Raven Software quality assurance testers will continue negotiations around a collective bargaining agreement. If the workers and the company can’t agree on terms, the NLRB could issue a complaint or, in the more unlikely case that the company refuses to settle, the board could prosecute the case before a federal judge.

“It’s a very preliminary win for the union at this point. It gives them a little bit of leverage,” said Wilma Liebman, former chairman of the NLRB under former president Barack Obama, who said that unions often file unfair labor complaints in conjunction with bargaining efforts. “It’s part of their tactics, you know, hit them wherever they can, to put pressure on the company in order to reach an agreement with them and to stop violating the law.”

A statement from Activision Blizzard spokesperson Rich George said: “Due to legal obligations under the [National Labor Relations Act] requiring employers not to grant wage increases while an election was pending, we could not institute new pay initiatives at Raven because they would be brand new kinds of compensation changes, which had not been planned beforehand. This rule that employers should not grant these kinds of wage increases has been the law for many years.”

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A June labor complaint filed to the NLRB claimed that Activision Blizzard discriminated and retaliated against current and former quality assurance testers for their union activity in various ways, including laying off 12 quality assurance testers, reorganizing the studio to remove the quality assurance department, withholding benefits and soliciting grievances. The NLRB also found that the company asked workers to air grievances while they were awaiting a union vote back in May. It is still investigating other parts of the complaint.

On Monday evening, the Communications Workers of America filed an amended version of the complaint it initially made in June, alleging that the company continues to violate labor laws by keeping the studio reorganized without a quality assurance department. It added that the company withheld raises from the Raven workers and announced the withholding was due to the union activity.

In May, a group of 28 Raven quality assurance testers won its bid for a union at the studio. The workers, who have organized as the Game Workers Alliance, told The Washington Post they hope others in the video game industry follow suit. Before the May election win, Activision Blizzard’s president and chief operating officer, Daniel Alegre, had tried to meet with union bargaining members in Wisconsin. This meeting attempt was uncovered during the NLRB’s testimony process.

George, the Activision Blizzard spokesperson, told The Washington Post in a statement, “This is not an accurate portrayal of events. Although Raven QA was offered a non-mandatory opportunity to meet with Activision Blizzard leadership during an on-site visit, because some of the QA testers had previously requested a discussion with management, at no point was this framed as an opportunity to specifically address grievances. Furthermore, the offer was never taken, and no meeting ever occurred.”

In April, quality assurance testers at Activision Blizzard outside of Raven were offered raises that bumped up their pay to $20 per hour. Raven testers did not receive the same offer, which the NLRB has now found to be evidence of withholding benefits in retaliation for union activity. Quality assurance testers at Raven make approximately $27,000 to $69,000, and are among the lowest paid workers at the studio, according to pay documents the company shared during labor relation hearings in February.

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“The company’s anti-union messaging has been disappointingly effective, and I think the bigger victory for us than getting the pay increase would be having Activision admit that what they did was unlawful,” said a current Raven Software employee, speaking on the condition of anonymity for fear of retaliation.

George said the company looked forward to defending its position during the NLRB’s litigation process, and “if necessary” the appeals court process.

“We just want the company to bargain in good faith, bargain a fair contract, and move past all this cheap and illegal behavior,” said Sara Steffens, Communications Workers of America secretary-treasurer, who is part of the union helping Raven workers organize.

Activision Blizzard is awaiting approval from international regulators of a deal to be acquired by Microsoft for nearly $69 billion. The Xbox and Windows maker previously said in June it would respect the rights of Activision Blizzard workers to join a union.

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