In my last post, I called bullshit on the way developers are being treated in the Game Industry. It’s easy for anyone to complain about what goes on, but it is much harder to come up with solutions. I am not going to say I have the answer, as I do not. I don’t believe that there is just one answer and all will be well. I do, however, believe that we need to start talking about the options available. In this article, I am going to focus on one option: Unionization.
Right now, some of you are thinking “Hell yes, that’s what we need!” while others will be thinking “Hell no!”. Unions are definitely a polarizing concept. I personally have never liked the idea of unions. My experience with unions has mainly been seeing teachers on strike, garbage collection blockades, and transit shutdowns that have impacted my life quite negatively. What most of us don’t think about is what we have experienced because of unions, such as, child-labor laws, minimum wage and everyone’s favorite, the weekend. Let us now take a look at what unions can do, and the obstacles it has to overcome.
One of the best things that a union offers is Collective Bargaining. The definition of a union is “An association, combination, or organization of employees who band together to secure favorable wages, improved working conditions, and better work hours, and to resolve grievances against employers.“. This seems to fit our issues perfectly, but let’s break this down a bit further.
One of the main reasons people will often want a union for is to have a clear salary grid with wages tied to duties. The game industry is notoriously tight-lipped on what people are being paid. They don’t want you to talk about it with other employees, so as to not rock the boat. It’s understandable that people will want to try and get the most money they can, but it causes friction when the numbers slip out.
It is incredibly unfair to many an employee when they were hired during lean times as a junior at $35K, gain two years experience with a 3% raise per year, to see a new hire with no experience come on at $40K or more. Companies often will add managerial duties, such as overseeing outsourcing, without giving additional pay. Even an individuals’ workload can vary wildly from peers with the exact same job title, yet the salary structure doesn’t acknowledge this. This means the worker is encouraged to jump from one company to another in order to increase their pay.
What we need is a clear salary grid that defines the roles and responsibilities and the associated wage. This will not only stabilize the industry, it will allow people to make better informed career paths. It will also help keep budgets under control as everyone will be aware the value of each position.
Better Work Hours
So far unionizing is sounding pretty good right now if we just look at the positives, doesn’t it? You may even be asking why we haven’t made this great leap forward yet! Well there are some major issues we would have to address if we went this route.
This is the most polarizing aspect of the discussion: to become a member of a union, you generally need to pay a small percentage of your salary in dues. How much is it? It is hard to say, but from my research it seems that around 2% is fairly common. While all this money is used to fund things like pensions, lobbying, legal representation, and salaries for the people running the actual union itself, it’s hard to convince everyone to give up a portion of their paycheck. Even if it is to benefit them, individuals may not be able to appreciate something that is not immediately tangible. Any union leadership seeking to organize the game industry would need to have clear definitions of the value it brings.
Any union leadership would need to have a very open dialogue with the ownership to mediate the power dynamic shift. Probably the most difficult challenge would be to get everyone to stick together for the common good. It goes without saying that ownership won’t readily want to give away their power base to the collective voice of the employees, and we’ve all seen enough stories about companies bucking attempts at unionization. The reality of an industry’s entry into a unionized workforce is often that dirty politics and forced closures affect individuals deeply.
It would behoove everyone involved to look ahead to mutually positive future goals to minimize studio shut-downs, layoffs, and fractured teams. We already know that publisher-owned studios have shuttered for much more elusive reasons. How many of us would be willing to hold tight and risk not only our job, but the jobs of our friends, in a bid to secure long-term outcomes?
One of the nice things about our industry is that for the most part, a merit-based system exists. It doesn’t matter if you have gone to school or worked on a dozen games, the majority of the time it’s the quality and competitiveness of your work that determines your role and compensation. Contrast this with the way a union generally works, where those who have come first are able to dictate the roles and compensation of those who follow. A strict seniority based system doesn’t make sense, particularly because technology evolves so quickly in our industry.
Unionization is a solution that every game developer needs to seriously contemplate. Companies will not change unless they are forced to and they are counting on the fear of job loss to be their shield. Being able to speak with one voice can truly make a difference, but it does come with a cost. If we can resolve ourselves to fight for a better quality of life, we can have it. Perhaps with a union it could work, but it isn’t our only choice. Next time, I will look into another option available to us: Independent Development!