Why Are So Many People Afraid of Unionization?

The video games industry has started to make serious strides towards unionization. While there is still a lot of work towards that goal that has to be done, it’s hard to ignore that there seems to be a shift in the outlook. Dante Douglas wrote this piece for Waypoint in December:

There are major issues with the industry that could be seen fixed dramatically by any form of unionization. Crunch, layoffs, pay disparity… all of it seems like it could benefit from a union.

So… why are so many “gamers” afraid of it?

I’ve put the word “gamer” in scare quotes here because I think, as many users here know, the kind of identity associated with “gamers” is very different than just “people who play video games”. There is a specific flavor of person that tends to be rallying against unionization. Much of this current discussion comes from Activision layoffs.

So why do you think this response is so extreme? Is it due to actual genuine concerns, or a reactionary fear of “the Left”? Do any of their arguments seem to hold any water?

Also, once again: what the fuck is with some of these people? JEEEEEEZ

(ps honestly this is an extremely short and vague post, but there’s been some discourse on some social media about it (i dont use twitter but i accidentally opened it today) and im curious what yall think about some of the reactionary tendencies here)

1 Like

One of the few arguments that seemed cogent to me about unionization not in the video games industry per se, but in the tech development industry came from a family member of mine. Not a gamer, but is still, I think, relevant to the conversation. This relative is left of center, but are still pretty bought into capitalism and the Democratic party. More importantly, they’ve worked in this industry for decades, so I wanted to be open to what they said, but also have been pushing them towards opening up to unionization in their industry. (I’ve made some progress!)

The argument they’ve made in the past, though, essentially boiled down to: Unionization in the industry wouldn’t go smoothly because the disparity between worker roles is substantial. The difference between two different developer’s needs might be so wide that unionization could inhibit them, rather than support them. Unionization wouldn’t help.

I bring this up because I’m curious: being a young Leftie myself, both inexperienced with labor politics and the tech industry’s nuances, I can’t really say whether or not this assessment is true, or how to counter it. I know it is being made in good faith, but I don’t have the experience or knowledge to be able to assess it properly. What I’ve said to them is that a) unionization’s benefits probably wouldn’t be deeply affected by this, b) there could be different unions/union guidelines to match needs, c) unionization probably wouldn’t hurt, anyway. But I mean… what do I know?

So, O Wise Zone of Discourse: Is this argument flawed, and if so, how? If you’ve worked in the industry, has your experience been different?
(pls dont dunk on this person, they are close to me and i know they are doing this all in good faith!!!)

Also, feel free to post good threads/articles against this lol. Here’s one from Rami Ismail:

2 Likes

If I had to hazard a guess as to the reactionary mindset, I think it’d go something like this:

  1. I love games x y & z made without unions.
  2. if the developers of those games had unionized and bargained for fairer wages, then it would have cost the companies more to develop those games.
  3. that either means those games would have been too expensive to be profitable and therefore they wouldn’t have been made or else corners would have had to have been cut on tightening up the graphics on level 6 resulting in an inferior game, both bad outcomes for me because see point #1
  4. at no point does any empathy for those making the games enter into it
5 Likes

I’m no expert but I am in Australia where we still have strong and functioning unions in many industries. I’m not currently in a unionised industry but have been in the past and my wife is a nurse and member of a very strong union.

I’d say your friend’s argument is very flawed. Unions function on multiple levels, industry wide, at a specific workplace or on behalf of a specific individual. Despite the games industry having a disparate roles a single union can support diverse workers. Just because an industry unionises doesn’t suddenly mean it’s turned to communism and there’s one set of pay and conditions for all.

I’d also argue that the disparate workers in the games industry needs are not that wide, they have more in common than they have differences. Whether your a programmer, artist, QA, admin, whether your at a 3 person indie or a AAA studio, you still need fair pay, health care, holidays, you might experience harassment or bullying, you might need help negotiating pay and conditions or just information about your rights.

Think of a union as serving all the functions of HR at a company but on behalf of the workers not the company.

As to why many ‘gamers’ are against the idea, I think it’s due to so much of the industry and games media being based in San Francisco. The whole libertarian, pro corporation, pro individual world view seems so prevalent coming out of that part of the world. So much games media that is ‘non-political’ seems to take the Silicone Valley world view as the only option.

5 Likes

They don’t actually care about the people who make their games and only care about buying new things that can help them enforce their commercially purchased and fragile identity, and developers unionizing, in their mind, threatens their very identity because they think the publishers could just fire everyone upon forming a union and delaying the latest release of Assassin’s Creed 92 or something, or possibly see the people who make the thing they like as going against their supposed role in their world view for daring to humanize themselves within their limited, pathetic narrative.

Or they’re just right wing dolts who just repeat nonsense spoon fed to them since birth without questioning it.

5 Likes

People either dont understand or compartmentalize the fact that the art they like is made by huge fucking teams of people and not by corporations, and the industry supports this because it creates brand loyalty and effects the bottom line. Unionization suggests a weakening of that weak-ass brand focused identity so it gets pushback.

2 Likes

It has always bewildered me, how unions are almost demonized in the USA in general, including in the games industry.

Here in Norway they are seen as important and necessary, and the biggest umbrella union has considerable sway over the political landscape in general. (So big in fact, there needs to be a “counter-union” that negotiates with them on behalf of businesses that are members)

When asking this question before I have heard that in the past they were seen as close to (or involved in) organized crime. Is this what still lingers?

4 Likes

Ignoring the people noted above who approach it purely from a consumerist view, I’ve recently been thinking in general about leftism and the resistance against it. And I really think that it’s because, precisely because leftism points out systemic problems rather than individual ones, it’s fucking exhausting to accept that worldview. It’s easier to believe that nothing is (catastrophically) wrong than to face the daunting prospect of fighting to fix it. (Not just for labor, but things like climate change too.)

It is fundamentally daunting, exhausting and soul crushing to look at the billionaires and think that they’re rich from stealing wages rather than earning all of it by being brilliant. It is very easy to fall into despair if you look at the world like, well, whether or not I use this plastic straw isn’t going to affect whether our planet survives, and I have no power to make Big Industries change wholesale, so like… it probably isn’t caused by people anyway! It’s just nature!

Most people don’t like facing down hard fights that are hard to win. So it’s probably easier to imagine yourself going back to school and gaining essential skills and competing for that good job than it is to imagine yourself spending long nights banging out a CBA. (Much respect to everyone involved in the recent VICE unionization too!)

Obvs not saying that this is right or anything. But I think this thinking informs just the basic resistance against accepting that the system is kind of fundamentally broken at this point – people don’t WANT it to be broken. And since they don’t accept that it’s broken, then you don’t need a union to fix a nonexistent problem – individuals should just be better at their jobs and not get laid off, right?

13 Likes

I think it’s either a misunderstanding of what unions are/how they operate, or just a willful ignorance to the importance and benefits that a strong union can create. I think there are some who have been influenced by media interpretations of unions and see them as nothing more as a leech on the backs of workers. Some probably have seen the really bad cases (like the one corrupt teamster who was just indicted in Philly) and think that is the normal way of things. What they do not see are all of the strong, dedicated unions that actually fight for their workers and their rights, because when Unions do their jobs correctly it is not exactly “sexy” news.

6 Likes

Certain unions in the northeast and midwest did have involvement with the mob in the 60s and 70s, and that was one of the things the neoliberal campaigns to destroy unions in the US used to propagandize against them in the 80s. There was a MASSIVE effort to paint union workers as lazy, unions as universally corrupt organizations that basically existed to extort real, tough, working class people who don’t mind not being able to take a longer break, unions as entities that hurt everyone because they strangled the free market etc. etc. And largely, it worked. In at least half of US states there are combinations of laws that make forming a union practically illegal from the get-go, and even if you could get past those striking at all would definitely be illegal. At-will employment is the rule, meaning you can be fired any time for any reason with no warning, so it typically doesn’t get to that point.

WWII was arguably the beginning of the end. All of the radical unions got almost completely stamped out, for the final time, because war-time manufacturing needs gave the government a really easy excuse for that, and the only ones that really survived were highly collaborationist unions who were willing to actively spy and snitch on other unions, which had been practice since the first Red Scare in the 20s. They became totally ascendant by this point and a lot of these unions did act more as a mediating entities to ensure the smooth operation of business rather than organizations for growing and protecting worker power. By the time they themselves were getting clamped down on, there was no way for them to fight back.

EDIT: As for the main topic, I don’t think “gamers” are this way for unique reasons. They are largely right wing, and the right hates unions even though they barely exist in the US anymore.

EDIT EDIT: Another thing: a lot of places in the US haven’t had a strong union presence since the 20s, especially in the South. Plenty of unions tried to exist but the first Red Scare, Jim Crow, the KKK, respectable businessmen etc, shot, deported, and lynched them out of existence, and they never really came back.

8 Likes

Great history lesson, thank you!

I think framing this conversation in a way that’s asking why the reactionary angry gamer crowd would be against this is kind of strange because we all know the answer, and that’s that they can’t stand to think that their beloved industry will be disrupted or changed in any way whatsoever. As disgusting as it is, there are more than a few people who would literally choose a game coming out a month early versus the developers not having to crunch and be miserable. I don’t really care what they think honestly.

Marijam Didžgalvytė is a really vocal figure behind the Game Workers Unite movement, and she had a great conversation with Danny O’Dwyer on his Noclip podcast recently. She’s written and spoken a ton about this for a while now, and one of the parts of the episode that stuck with me was her being openly and extremely critical of the many unions and, more broadly, “worker’s rights organizations” that have failed workers over the years. She notes that of course the public perception of unions took a major hit after decades of propaganda, but that there very much was/is many bloated, disorganized, corrupt organizations screwing people over too, under the pretense of assisting them. Her job becomes especially difficult when she has to convince potential members that not only is the cause worth it, but that they’re actually a serious, well organized, competent group that cares. It’s something that I think a lot of proponents are super afraid to touch on and address at all, but hearing her so candidly do so felt important.

Like yeah obviously I think the benefits of a strong union are clear and this is absolutely the direction things should be heading, but I think there is a lot of outright dismissal and shunning of people who aren’t necessarily rallying against the cause, but who come forward with negative experiences regarding unions or of people who have legitimate questions and concerns about the details of the potential leadership and tactics in question. It’s often not super hard to separate the people who are either willfully ignorant or just obviously acting in bad faith (the usual gamer crowd mentioned above, conservative boot-lickers, etc.) and people who want to know more or are hesitant to jump onboard.

It seems like such a long, arduous road ahead for the organizers, but it’s obviously exciting to see people really passionate about it, and I can only hope for the best. These terrible mass lay-off stories are coming in so fast and frequent that I think something’s gotta give, and soon.

5 Likes

@JKDarkSide
So, while I am empathetic and actually pretty much in agreement, I think this perspective can be really unproductive? Like, yes, they’re right wing dolts, and they don’t need to be protected for being dolts. But I think it’s far more useful to interrogate those beliefs and the things that inspired them rather than just to say “they’re brainwashed” or “they only care about their cultivated identity”.

@Foxtrot
I mean, you’re right. It is strange to ask “why”, because we all know why. I will admit that I was basically using this as a rhetorical question to talk about the pushback on unionization from certain demographics.

I think a lot of the younger Left really do need to grapple with the reality that not all American union skepticism is the byproduct of right-reactionary propaganda and instead due to the historical reality that a lot of unions, especially the biggest ones, in the US have been incredibly corrupt.

Organizing and uniting labor is all well and good, but telling people that the best way to do that is to pay dues to, effectively and literally, the mafia, is going to be a hard sell.

3 Likes

I think one root cause for this fear is a question that we can try to answer for people too: how would unionization change games? I’m reading Blood, Sweat and Pixels right now off the back of finishing Capitalist Realism and one extremely common theme in Pixels is that because crunch and precarious employment is universal, it is inevitable. Every constraint placed on games by the capitalist system is one that we accept, some times critically and sometimes uncritically. Loot crates, for example, are not a game mechanic, but a completely unobscured extraction mechanism. Often enough even those of us who is critical of loot crates shrug and say “It’s inevitable, isn’t it?”.

Organization is not seen as inevitable, it’s seen as a choice. And the constraints that organization will place on games companies will be real! Last second executive shakeups can’t be effective if you have to pay severance to the employees you’ve laid off. Crunch can’t be as pervasive if overtime is implemented.

Organization has the power to change not just the lives of people who make games (in my view, for the better), but the games themselves! Maybe it means companies have to change how they think about deadlines, maybe the structure of publisher capital has to change, maybe everything is released extremely early and works on a long tail. Who knows?

To @dogsarecool’s point: yeah, there have absolutely been corrupt unions. People and their parents have worked in corrupt unions. But in order for a union to get corrupt it has to build any kind of worker power in the first place, and laws in the US make that an increasingly hard sell. It would take decades to form a union that’s capable of any kind of genuine corruption.

Also, we have to think about what our definition of corruption means at this point! If a company can post a record year followed by massive layoffs and pay huge bonuses to its exec, what would we call that but corruption? To charges of corruption I say all human institutions are capable of corruption and it’s only through continuous improvement of our systems that we distribute power in such away as to minimize corruption.

So many of us claim to value freedom and democracy, but the moment we step over the line into a workplace it’s suddenly no longer a concern. I don’t love piggybacking on neoliberal definitions of freedom, but I think it’s worth convincing people that it’s worth doing.

This is getting long but finally: we should try to convince consumers of games, it’s worth doing when they’re not just being obstructionist. But, crucially, this isn’t about consumers, it’s about workers, and I think the best way to convince workers is in practice. As some smaller workplaces unionize, their effects will hopefully be felt.

8 Likes

One factor I haven’t seen mentioned yet: a completely irrational number of people believe they’re going to be the ones making $28 million one day, and therefore side with that group now.

There’s also a widely held position along the lines of, “well, I don’t have a union at my job, so why should people living the dream of making videogames have more protection than I do at my generic office job?” (One of those so close to an epiphany things.)

8 Likes

Because everyone’s a temporarily embarrassed millionaire and unionization will hinder their ability to excel

The way the “West” views class is so fundamentally borked through decades of concentrated propaganda that the challenge of convincing people that their life is not actually a Galt-esque quest for THE MOST CAPITAL is often pretty staggering

5 Likes

I’m going to speak kind of broadly here. Why people in 2019 in general are at least skeptical of unions (seemingly less skeptical as capitalism’s mask is dropping), the economy crashed over and over again and support for unions always wanes when the economy takes a downturn. The modern Republican party started tanking the economy on the reg in the 80s and pushed the lies of competition being the end all for economic prosperity (while actively removing barriers to a handful of companies to swallow everything in their periphery). The result is lots of people who believed they should appease their sporadic overlords for their own sake and thankful for the opportunity. Only now the illusion is gone in many industries, the quality of your work doesn’t matter to profit margins.

1 Like

Unionization in the industry wouldn’t go smoothly because the disparity between worker roles is substantial. The difference between two different developer’s needs might be so wide that unionization could inhibit them, rather than support them. Unionization wouldn’t help.

What difference? Does a character artist have to eat less than a programmer to survive? This is a hot take, if I’ve ever seen one. Your friend seems to somehow intuitively put the needs of business to operate smoothly for capital accumulation (profit making) first and conflates this with the needs of the workers. What does your friend imagine a union is supposed to be?

2 Likes