Workers at World of Warcraft studio Proletariat withdraw union petition

As two unions under Activision Blizzard move forward into contract negotiations, a third subsidiary studio started to organize. Workers at Boston-based World of Warcraft support studio Proletariat attempted to unionize under the Communications Workers of America, just like Raven Software and Blizzard Albany before them. Workers announced their petition in late December, but withdrew the application on Tuesday.

A representative of Communications Workers of America issued the following statement:

CWA has withdrawn its request for a representation election at Activision Blizzard’s Proletariat studio. Unfortunately, Proletariat CEO Seth Sivak chose to follow Activision Blizzard’s lead and responded to the workers’ desire to form a union with confrontational tactics. Like many founders, he took the workers’ concerns as a personal attack and held a series of meetings that demoralized and disempowered the group, making a free and fair election impossible.

As we have seen at Microsoft’s Zenimax studio, there is another path forward, one that empowers workers through a free and fair process, without intimidation or manipulation by the employer. We will continue to advocate alongside workers in the video game industry for better working conditions, higher standards and a union voice.

With the petition withdrawn, workers at Proletariat will not vote on a union.

“We appreciate that the CWA has unilaterally decided to withdraw its petition in response to employee feedback,” media relations VP Joe Christinat said in a statement to Polygon. “As we’ve stated, we welcomed the opportunity for each employee to safely express their preferences through a confidential vote. Our team at Proletariat does extraordinary work every day. They remain focused on working with their teams to continue to make Proletariat a place where all can grow, thrive, and be part of an amazing team and culture.”

Dustin Yost, a software engineer at Proletariat, said in a statement issued through CWA that, originally, the majority of workers supported the union. The worker said “meetings which framed the conversation as a personal betrayal” to management took a toll on that support. “While we are withdrawing our union election petition today, and truly hope that management will prioritize the concerns that led us to organize, I still believe that a union is the best way for workers in our industry to ensure our voices are being heard,” Yost said.

Proletariat Workers Alliance was looking to secure the company’s current paid time-off plan, as well as flexible remote options, healthcare benefits, and ensuring transparency and diversity are top priorities.

“Our top priority remains our employees, and we value the contributions the talented Proletariat team has made since joining Blizzard this summer,” an Activision Blizzard spokesperson said in a statement issued to Polygon when the petition was filed. “We received the petition over the holidays and will provide a response to the NLRB next week.”

“At Proletariat and with our peers across the industry, many of us love our jobs,” Proletariat senior engineer Yost told Polygon in early January, before the petition was withdrawn. “We at Proletariat care a lot about our team. We want to make sure we have a real voice in our future, in order to have a positive impact on our company for the benefit of our team, our company, and anyone enjoying the content we create. Doing right by each other is the goal here.”

Proletariat Workers Alliance was slated to go to a vote with the National Labor Relations Board — the same process that both Raven Software and Blizzard Albany’s QA unions went through. Activision Blizzard challenged the election in both studios’ cases, and sought to expand the proposed bargaining unit beyond QA testers.

Companies sometimes fight to expand the size of a unit to water down union organization efforts, to increase the probability of a union vote failing. But an NLRB ruling in 2022 made it easier for organizers to unionize smaller groups within a company (called micro-units), which puts the onus on a company to provide overwhelming evidence that a group should be opened up.

CWA has filed multiple unfair labor complaints against Activision Blizzard for its alleged union-busting tactics; Activision Blizzard representatives have denied any wrongdoing.

Seth Sivak founded Proletariat in 2012, and the studio operated independently, working on games like Spellbreak and StreamLegends until Activision Blizzard acquired the studio in 2022. Sivak is now vice president of development at Blizzard Entertainment, overseeing the Boston-based Proletariat studio, which is now working on World of Warcraft. Allison Brown, a software engineer developer in testing, told Polygon that union talk started before the acquisition, but around the rumblings of working with the company.

“There was a concern that suddenly becoming part of a bigger organization that we might lose some of the things that made Proletariat special,” Brown said.

She continued: “No matter how much trust we have for management […], things can change. I started in the industry 14 years ago, I’ve been laid off more than once. I’ve watched benefits change and get worse. There’s no control over it. But if we’re bargaining collectively, if we get these things in writing, there are mechanisms in place to make sure that we have a voice.”

After the petition was announced, Proletariat leadership published a blog in which it declined to recognize the Proletariat union, forcing the union to a vote with the National Labor Relations Board. Proletariat leadership described the company as “pro-worker,” and implied that some workers had concerns, which is why management wanted to hold a vote.

Activision Blizzard’s response to previous unionizing efforts has been in contrast with Microsoft’s so-called labor neutrality agreement. The agreement, signed with CWA, means that Microsoft will not interfere with organizing efforts at the company — neither with current Microsoft workers, or with workers potentially joining Microsoft as part of its $68.7 billion deal to acquire Activision Blizzard (currently subject to a Federal Trade Commission lawsuit).

That agreement was tested late last year when QA workers at ZeniMax Media, responsible for franchises like The Elder Scrolls, Doom, and Fallout, announced their intention to unionize. Microsoft agreed to recognize the union after a speedy vote outside of the NLRB; the company was able to sidestep a lot of the bureaucracy because of the neutrality agreement. ZeniMax QA workers voted through union authorization cards and an online portal, where a supermajority of workers pledged support for the union.

Update (Jan. 9): This story has been updated to include comment from Activision Blizzard.

Update (Jan. 10): On Monday, Proletariat leadership published a blog in which it declined to recognize the Proletariat union, forcing the union to a vote with the National Labor Relations Board. Proletariat leadership described the company as “pro-worker.”

The Proletariat Workers Alliance disputed that, saying that not recognizing the supermajority of signed union cards is anti-union. “Their actions this week have been right out of the union-busting playbook used by Activision and so many others,” workers wrote in a statement. “Management held a town hall last week which disappointed many of our workers. The meeting was inappropriate due to its anti-union influence.”

Workers continued: “We can decide for ourselves if we want a union. We don’t need help from management. We need — and deserve — respect and neutrality. We want to do right by our team and collaborate with management without contention. We can help make Proletariat the best it can be by having each others backs.”

Update (Jan. 24): Workers at Proletariat withdrew the union petition on Jan. 24. This story has been updated to reflect that new information.

Update (Jan. 24): Activision Blizzard responded to CWA’s withdrawn petition:

We appreciate that the CWA has unilaterally decided to withdraw its petition in response to employee feedback. As we’ve stated, we welcomed the opportunity for each employee to safely express their preferences through a confidential vote. Our team at Proletariat does extraordinary work every day. They remain focused on working with their teams to continue to make Proletariat a place where all can grow, thrive, and be part of an amazing team and culture.

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