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State of the union: Is it time for devs to unionise?

Unionisation has never been as passionate a debate for the industry as crunch, nor as perennial. And that’s despite it having long been suggested that unions could actually be the solution for the bugbear of working conditions.

Rockstar’s recent ‘100-hour weeks’ controversy has put both issues squarely back in the ring. Which is why we decided to reach out to developers, trade bodies and unions themselves to understand (the lack of) unionisation in games development to date.

Some of our emails remained unanswered, some were met with a polite decline. If anything, the lack of response shows suggests trade unions remain a sensitive topic and that potentially the games industry lacks information or interest – maybe both – on the subject.

Regardless of your broader opinions on unionisation, it is healthy as an industry to remain open to this debate.

Here we’ll look into how it would work, why it could be good, why games development has been fairly indifferent to unions to date and what options are currently available; but also the downsides of such a move. It’s impossible for this feature to be exhaustive on the matter though, or to reflect the opinion of the entire industry, so if you have something to say about it, to further the debate, we’d love to hear from you.

A PLUNGE INTO THE UNKNOWN

“Talk of creating unions have been ongoing for the best part of 20 years,” Amiqus’ Liz Prince tells MCV, before making a crucial point: “Are working conditions in some companies any worse nowadays, or are we seeing an amplification of grievances due to social media?”

Regardless of the answer to that question, these issues need to be addressed and the unionisation approach appeals to some.

To say that games development is not unionised isn’t entirely true; to say that game developers are not widely unionised is a fairer statement. There are small scale options that exist already, such as the newly founded Game Workers Unite UK, which for instance marched with the Independent Workers’ Union of Great Britain (IWGB) on October 30th to call out precarious work conditions.

That said, there are currently no large trade unions representing game developers’ day-to-day interests, such as negotiating on pay.

“Trade unions have not emerged to date for several reasons,” Dr Richard Wilson OBE, CEO of trade body TIGA, says. “Firstly, unions today are concentrated in the public sector. Union representation is much lighter in the private sector. Traditional trade unions do not appear to have given much focus to the creative sector. Secondly, the overwhelming majority of games studios in the UK are small: approximately two-thirds of studios in the UK employ four or fewer people. In these circumstances there is typically little need for unions because the business will often be run cooperatively.”

If the creative industries have traditionally not been the focus of trade unions, there is one whose specialty is actually not far from it: the Broadcasting, Entertainment, Communications and Theatre Union.

“BECTU is the union for the media and entertainment industry,” organising official Naomi Taylor explains.

“We cover all the people behind the scenes in the sector, from the BBC camera crew to the stage hands in the West End. We already have members who are software developers in other areas, and gaming, whether freelance or permanently employed, would find a natural fit with BECTU, [which] has some members from the games industry currently.” However, the union hasn’t seen a lot of interest from the games industry to date.

“BECTU has explored unionising the games industry in the past, but the will from the industry at the time didn’t seem to be there,” Taylor continues. “From an outside perspective, it seems that the industry is getting a little older and realising that they don’t want to work the long hours they did when they first started. People want a better work-life balance.”

Teazelcat’s founder Jodie Azhar reckons that some developers would not even know where to start as far as unions are concerned.

“Unionisation would be a new concept to many developers and it’s likely the benefits of paying to join would be unknown to them,” she says. “While even those who don’t feel the worst of overtime and bad workplace conditions could benefit from unionisation, many people would lack the impetus to join without first seeing a union’s efficacy.”

She adds that there’s also a much more practical barrier to unionisation: “The biggest hurdle in unionising is having people organise it. Running a union is a full time job and those passionate about starting a union want to remain game developers, so you have a catch 22 of changing job to protect the job you love.”

Taylor explains those hurdles: “Starting your own union is a big endeavour. You would need to collect membership fees, submit accounts to the Certification Officer, as well as meet various criteria to be able to apply to become a union. You would also need to train people to be able to represent your members in disciplinary meetings and grievances, as well as to negotiate deals on behalf of the membership as a whole. You would need insurance to protect those you train and you need to pay lawyers to help with employment issues. In short, it seems like a lot of work when you could have your own identity within BECTU.”

DEALING WITH CRUNCH

Whatever form it could take – and already takes – it’s impossible to deny that a games dev union would have advantages for developers.

“If we’re thinking about games industry individuals, rather than companies or studios, there are definitely some who feel that forming a union would tackle some of the issues that are currently being raised regarding crunch, unpaid overtime and the workplace environment in general,” Prince says. “I understand why some feel that unionisation is the answer because some of the working practices being highlighted at the moment are far from ideal and are being reported on extensively.”

Working hours would indeed be at the core of the benefits of unionisation, Azhar explains.

“The standout benefit of having an organisation fight on behalf of game developers is working hours and unpaid overtime. Almost 59 per cent of game developers report working over 40 hours a week and 12 per cent over 50. While most studios don’t enforce it, many people in creative industries feel obliged to work extra hours adding extra polish to their work. Words like ‘passion’ mask the pressure and downplay the crippling side effects of unmanaged overtime.”

She refers here to the fact ‘passion’ is regularly mentioned by studios as a justification for working long hours, when obviously no passion should cost you your health.

“Many young people put in extra effort to prove themselves or retain their job after entering this competitive industry, and rely on colleagues to show them the standards for working. Unfortunately if those are already used to overtime these practices get propagated via workplace culture,” Azhar continues. “Having a union negotiate paid overtime would make employers take deliberate decisions on whether and when employees do overtime, removing the emotional obligation of doing more work to improve their part of the game.”

Unions could also help various issues regarding salaries, as once again working on your passion project can sometimes be used as an excuse to be underpaid.

“Standardising and broadcasting salaries would benefit many employees. Most of the time salary is driven by demand, so joining a company at a critical time can drive your salary up, making it continually unfair to existing staff in the same role,” Azhar says. “Employees often feel the need to switch companies to get a higher salary as it’s more difficult to negotiate internal pay rises, or can find themselves with below average salaries because of the alleged ‘privilege’ of working on a well-known title. Negotiating is a separate skill unrelated to job capability that employees often require to get paid what they’re worth so a union negotiating on their behalf would create a far more level playing field.”

TIGA’s Wilson adds that the benefits of a union would largely depend on its “nature and behaviour.” He explains: “If the union was focused on encouraging training in the workplace and working constructively with the owners and managers of the games studio then it could be beneficial.”

Employers can also profit from unionisation, Taylor further says.

“Employers benefit from having a more structured and organised way of communicating and consulting with their employees,” she says. “They really find out what their workers think, and in terms of making sure they are complying with UK legislation, such as health and safety regulations and the Working Time Directive, having union involvement can often help them to avoid a breach and the costs that come with that.”

US AND THEM

Talking about the downsides of unionisation, one answer kept coming back: the divisive aspect of trade unions, which we very much felt already at MCV as we tried to reach out to people to brainstorm on the topic.

“Unions potentially create tension between employer and employees through a more ‘us and them’ relationship,” Azhar says. “Game development can create strong bonds between employees, including management, especially in small and mid-sized companies, and staff may not want to add an extra barrier or be seen as a trouble maker.”

She rightly points out that those “issues are not specific to a game development union” though and “can be dispelled with research into successful existing unions.”

Richard Wilson adds: “If the union adopted an antagonistic attitude to the business then it could be divisive and damaging. Some developers might be concerned that a union in the video games sector could operate antagonistically or negatively, with damaging consequences for the studios concerned.”

A point of view Prince seems to agree with, saying that “union rules could have a hugely negative effect on small studios.” She also points out that the international aspect of our industry will make any larger-scale unionisation a difficult enterprise.

“A big problem that pro-unionists will face is that video games is a global industry,” she says. “Publishers and studios in one part of the world often work with other studios around the world. And different countries have different employment laws – so there is no one-size-fits-all approach.”

We tell Taylor about how unionisation seems to bring up a lot of entrenched views – largely on broad political lines – and ask her if the reality is less divisive than some might think.

“I would say so,” she answers, before adding a very important point, going against the usual clichés as far as the UK is concerned: “BECTU is not affiliated to the Labour Party, as we are a sector of a larger union, Prospect, who cover some civil service areas.

“We’re also very conscious of the wide range of views our members have. You don’t have to vote Labour to see the value of a union in your workplace and to participate in a union-led campaign.”

EYES HALF SHUT?

When asked about the benefits and downsides of game developers unionising, Ukie’s CEO Dr Jo Twist OBE answers that the trade body “fully supports and endorses the best workplace practices that ensure working conditions are fair.” She then adds: “Unions for different skill sets and roles already exist in the UK across different sectors and strong UK employment laws already offer protection and support for employees and employers.

“We are also in regular dialogue with various organisations and parties on this issue. We continue to see many companies in the UK industry evolve so that they retain and recruit the best people they need to succeed, and many businesses now offer increased flexibility to deliver what they need to.”

While Ukie and TIGA certainly engage with the fight for better conditions, unionisation would likely bring it to the next level. Whether or not massive unionisation is needed or will happen remains to be seen though.

“At Amiqus, we’re keeping a close eye on the discussions,” says Prince. “I think one online forum post recently summed up our current view perfectly. To paraphrase, one thing we must consider is that, with Brexit approaching, we should be wary of anything that will make the UK a less attractive place to make games,” she says. “At the same time, union or no union, we should all consider and continue to debate what the issues are – whether unfriendly working environments, crunch or more. Ultimately, we need to keep the conversation going and ensure that a career in games remains attractive.”

BECTU is obviously keen to keep that conversation going and is calling for game developers to reach out:

“The best way to kick off the process is for people to join or get in touch. We want to hear from the games industry,” Taylor says. “We know that there are problems around long hours, and we need to be building a campaign around that. You can take a look at #EyesHalfShut to see a similar kind of campaign BECTU ran in the London film industry. The ultimate aim would be to get employers signing up to agreements that set out what kind of hours people are expected to work in the games industry. To achieve this, we need a strong, active membership to push for these kinds of campaign aims.”

And Azhar reckons that, considering the situation, we’ll see more and more developers being tempted by unionisation.

“As we see more open discussion about unionisation and the effects of bad workplaces it becomes more likely people with motivation to formally protect the rights of game developers will come together, whether it’s those with the passion to make a difference, or people who have burnt out and want to prevent the same happening to others,” she says. “The support of those in more comfortable positions will greatly increase the momentum of a game developer union. Those who need a union the most often have the least capacity for contributing to one.”

Do you have an opinion about unionisation that you feel was not reflected in this feature? Get in touch, we’d love to hear from you and broaden the discussion, regardless of where you stand in the debate. Send an email to marie.dealessandri@futurenet.com.

About Marie Dealessandri

Marie Dealessandri is MCV’s senior staff writer, having joined the publication during its days as a weekly magazine. After testing the waters of the film industry in France and being a radio host and reporter in Canada, she settled for the games industry in London in 2015. She can be found (very) occasionally tweeting @mariedeal, usually on a loop about Baldur’s Gate, Hollow Knight and the Dead Cells soundtrack.

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