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A pair of hands using a video game controller to play a fighting game on a television in the background
The video game industry has been plagued with round after round of layoffs, leaving workers in a vulnerable position. (Shutterstock)

Game changer: A labour group in Québec is pushing for a province-wide video game workers’ union

Two labour organizations in Québec, Game Workers Unite (GWU) Montréal and the trade union Confédération des syndicats nationaux (CSN), have announced they’re partnering for a union drive. Their goal is an ambitious one: to create a province-wide union for workers in the video game industry.

Québecers are likely familiar with CSN for its pivotal role in last winter’s mass labour action — one of the largest in Canadian history — involving 560,000 workers from the Front commun and the Fédération Autonome de l'Enseignement.

As a union federation with more than 300,000 members, 1,600 affiliated unions and a century of experience, CSN is one of the oldest and most active labour organizations in the province.

GWU Montréal may be less of a household name, but has gained prominence in the game industry as a worker-run, labour rights group. GWU Montréal is a local chapter of GWU, which formed in 2018 in reaction to contentious unionization talks at that year’s Game Developers Conference.

While GWU operates in various jurisdictions, these chapters operate mostly independently, with several partnering with larger union federations or forming unions themselves.

On paper, the affiliation between CSN and GWU Montréal appears to be a mutually beneficial arrangement. GWU Montréal will have access to CSN’s vast resources and expertise, while CSN can tap into GWU Montréal’s game industry knowledge and years of grassroots organization.

However, their campaign faces an uphill climb within an industry that is relatively untested in terms of unionization. While Québec is home to nearly 15,000 video game workers who are part of a $1.4 billion industry, none of them are currently unionized.

This begs the question: why push for labour action now?

A middle-aged white woman in a black and white blouse speaks into a microphone from behind a table
Confederation des syndicats nationaux President Caroline Senneville speaks during a news conference in Montréal in August 2023. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Graham Hughes

Why unionize?

Even industry outsiders are likely aware of the turmoil currently facing video game workers.

Throughout 2023, and only picking up steam in 2024, game companies have laid off their employees in droves. Kotaku and GamesIndustry.biz reported that studios let go of between 6,000 and 10,000 workers in 2023 and an additional 9,500 in the first four months of 2024.

In Québec, it is estimated that between 400 to 500 video game workers have been laid off from companies such as Behaviour Interactive, Ubisoft and Eidos Montréal.

Employment precarity in the game industry is not a new phenomenon, but recent rounds of layoffs have been met with growing cynicism.

With video game company Electronic Arts publicly rationalizing its cuts as a pursuit of “durable growth, strong cash-flow and stockholder returns” and media company Embracer announcing their “overruling principle is to always maximize shareholder value in any given situation,” workers are beginning to recognize their precarity may be systemic.

This growing enthusiasm for labour action is reflected in recent game industry surveys and reports. The International Game Developers Association’s 2023 Developer Satisfaction Survey notes the majority of video game workers are in favour of unionization, with workers recounting not only precarity but also the proliferation of discrimination and “crunch” culture across the industry.

A 2023 Canadian research project posed similar findings, with 89 per cent of video game workers believing that unions could improve the state of the industry and 58 per cent saying they would support labour action at their current workplace.

Appropriately titled “If You Don’t Like The Game, Change The Rules,” the white paper features testimony from dozens of video game workers who believe now is the time for radical transformation.

A rising tide

Beyond attitudinal shifts, labour action has begun to concretely manifest across North America through numerous successful unionization campaigns.

In America, video game companies ZeniMax Studios and Raven Software were early standard-bearers for the rising tide of unionization, which has grown to include companies such as Sega of America, Activision and Workinman Interactive.

People walk in front of a wall with the Activision and Blizzard logos on it
A group of roughly 600 software testers at Activision Blizzard formed the U.S. video game industry’s largest union yet in March 2024. (AP Photo/Jae C. Hong)

In Canada, Anemone Hug Interactive and Keywords Studios both completed successful unionization campaigns, despite a contentious round of layoffs that resulted from the Keywords action.

Central to many of these campaigns has been the growing involvement of established unions. Similar to the partnership between GWU Montréal and CSN, the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees has launched Rights and Protections for Gameworkers and Communications Workers of America has mobilized through its Campaign to Organize Digital Employees. These efforts mark a relatively unprecedented effort to make inroads into the game industry.

These larger organizations, commonly referred to as parent unions, provide training sessions, how-to guides and consultations with labour organizers to help workers get started. They can then vote to unionize individual workplaces or form trade unions that encompass an entire industry, such as CSN-Construction, a union representing the construction industry in Québec.

But will union efforts catch on in the Québec video game industry? It may be a while before we find out. Unionization campaigns can take months, even years, to complete, and are necessarily secretive in order to elude common union-busting tactics.

Still, with a large game industry and a long history of labour organization, GWU Montréal and CSN likely feel good about their chances.

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