A Call to Arms pt.2 Unions

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.

The Good

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.

Wage parity

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.

Working Conditions

At first glance, most people won’t complain about workplace conditions. In many ways, we are kind of spoiled in the game industry. Plenty of companies offer things like flex hours, free food, on-site gym, or a cabin in the great room. Our much ballyhooed perks are one of the reasons why so many people want to work in the high tech sector. We don’t have to worry about things like chemical hazards, dangerous machinery, or falling from heights. However, working conditions is not just about physical safety, but mental safety as well.

 

Stress is a major issue and everyone in this industry is impacted by it. The most common reason for it is unreasonable scheduling of projects. Traditional project management builds a schedule by looking at the budget, how many people they have, and the contingencies, then they estimate how long it will take to build the project. In games, however, most schedules appear to be built by using a workback plan from a set delivery date- this obviously isn’t the ideal if you’re putting people and quality first.

 

For example, most sports games have yearly releases, which means a 9-month turnaround. If it were just a new skin, then this can be achievable, but it seems that it’s never just a skin that management pushes for- it’s new features, redesigned mechanics, and often new technology.

 

Even worse, In my experience it seems many studios have a practice where they have two separate schedules, an internal one and an external one. The reason often stated for this is to ensure that the team is able to achieve the publisher’s deliverables and having that little bit extra to wow them. What it actually means is that everyone ends up working hard to achieve the internal schedule, the publisher’s sees the progress, and then expects more the next time. It’s a vicious circle that creates a constant sense of stress.

 

What we need is a responsible scheduling system with proper check and balances. This will help reduce stress and help us have better metrics for future projects.

Better Work Hours

Everyone should agree that the hours we work in this industry create an untenable, unsustainable clip which results in complete burnout. Can anyone really say that they only work a 40 hour work week for the duration of the project? Probably not. Unfortunately, what these companies are doing is not illegal or easily addressed in many parts of the world. For example, the high tech industry, which games is a part of here in BC, is exempt from many of the common labor laws. Years ago, these high technology corporations told the government that we are “an ever changing, fast paced, highly creative and innovative industry that does not fit the traditional model industry that the Employment Standards Act was developed for”. How many people know that our industry does not have to allow for statutory holidays? Sure they give you the big ones like Christmas Day, but what about Remembrance Day? I remember getting into an argument with a roommate over whether it was a holiday of not. She said it was, I said it wasn’t. We were both correct.

 

The game industry is also exempt from standard overtime. Companies will often mask this by stating that they will offer overtime pay if employees are asked to do overtime. The trick here is that they often don’t ASK you to do overtime. They will just give a pep talk about how good the game would be if we just pushed it a bit further and the leave it to the employee “to make that choice to work extra hours“. Another trick they like to do is offer time in lieu, which they insinuate would make up for all of the overtime, but again in my experience, it ends up being closer to 3 hours worked to 1 hour make up time. I personally went through a period of 3 months where I worked between 84 and 100 hours a week and received about 200 total hours in-lieu . On top of that, I was made to feel guilty for taking a single weekend off and had to pull a 22 hour shift before I could actually leave. What the hell?

 

We should not have to work more than 40 hours per week to create a game, and if we do, we should be paid proper overtime. We should have a minimum amount of time between shifts and a maximum amount of consecutive days we can work. We need rules to help alleviate the undue duress we get from the team and management for wanting to be with our families.

The Obstacles

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.

Union Dues

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.

Solidarity

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?

Seniority

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.

Conclusion

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!

7 thoughts on “A Call to Arms pt.2 Unions

  1. ‎”great leap forward,” nice touch!

    You brought up the “vicious cycle” issue in reference to sports games, where publishers push and developers cave. But since many big licensee holders are already vertically integrated (EA, Sega, etc), isn’t the pressure all internal? This sheds light on another possibility: the bigger a company gets, the more susceptible it is to unionization.

  2. Your best (and likely only) solution here is to start your own studio. When you’re an owner, you get to decide all of these things and what kind of company you’re going to run.

  3. Unions cause an increase in wages, helath benefits, holiday bonuses, and lower the amount allowed to work by any employee to no more than 40 hours a week (in most cases) which in turn lowers the productivity. Also in most cases, they are required to hire more people to fill in the hours the regular employees would have been working if there had been no union.Example: I work 12 hours a day, 6 to 7 days a week. If we went union, it would be only 8 hours a day, for 5 days a week, but I would be getting paid possibly around 8.50 and hour, rather than 7.95. So the company would be losing out by paying me more, to work less. I’d be working from 8AM until 5PM and they would need to hire part timers to work the hours from 5PM until 9PM to make up for the lost work productivity. Which would require them to pay way more money than needed.

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