/Why Tech Workers Need a Union: a Q&A with the CWA’s Emma Kinema

Why Tech Workers Need a Union: a Q&A with the CWA’s Emma Kinema

Workers at Riot Games stage a walkout.
Photo: Dania Maxwell/LA Times via Getty Images

Earlier this month, the Communication Workers of America launched a new initiative: the Campaign to Organize Digital Employees, or CODE-CWA, an organizing effort focused on workers in the tech and video-game industries. It’s among the highest-profile such efforts in these industries, which, until relatively recently, tended to be seen as rewarding workplaces offering lucrative careers, fun office environments, and plenty of perks. As it turns out, that’s infrequently the case. A spate of news reports over the last few years have shown the extent to which digital employees suffer from many of the same workplace problems as other workers — including discrimination, pay gaps, outsourcing stressful labor — plus some new ones like moderating disturbing content, and, in the gaming industry, the all-too-common “crunch.” In addition to these bread-and-butter workplace issues, tech workers in particular have an added concern: the ramifications of their work. Employees at Google recently protested the use of their work in military contracts, while Amazon employees recently protested the company’s role in climate change.

Intelligencer spoke with Emma Kinema, a game-industry veteran and one of CODE-CWA’s organizers, about what they hope to achieve with the initiative.

What was your background before you joined the CWA?

There’s been two main threads that I’ve been up to. One has been my career in game development, where I’ve worked on a variety of different disciplines ranging across indie game development, freelancing, mobile games, VR, AAA, whatever. And for the past nine years or so I’ve been engaged in labor organizing in one way or another. In the last two years in particular, those two aspects of my life came together, especially after the founding of Game Workers Unite and very much became a part of my daily work to do the labor organizing in games, in addition to my career.

What sorts of experiences led you to want to organize or mobilize your colleagues?

It’s a great variety of things. Even though I’m relatively young, I’ve definitely seen my fair share of crunch and toxic workplace culture, and studios having layoffs, and wage discrimination and pay gaps between gender and race, and poor health care, and on and on and on. Terrible standardization for crediting practices, so many different things. I know those firsthand and from hearing about things from my peers and friends and colleagues, as well as a growing sentiment in the industry, that there are issues that really need to get fixed. All of that very much influences my drive to organize.

For our readers who might not pay close attention to the games industry, could you summarize what crunch is?

“Crunch” is game-industry jargon that we use to refer to long periods of overtime work, often at the last minute of a production cycle on a game. And sometimes it’s unpaid, sometimes it’s paid. It’s a mixed bag on that one. But oftentimes, there’s social pressure or literal mandates from the management to do this. There’s been lots of research and anecdotal discussion around the negative impacts it has both on in terms of worker health, mental and physical, as well as the quality of our products.

What would you say has changed in the last couple of years that has made the type of initiative like CODE-CWA possible?

I think a lot of it really comes down to a spreading awareness of how games get made, and what the development process is like, and increasing transparency into the nature of the work. I think for a long time there hasn’t been a lot of discussion about the back end of how games get made, both in player communities and in the general public. I think more conversation around those kinds of things and labor conditions really laid the groundwork to have more comprehensive and more material conversations around how to actually go about fixing this. Really, organizing is a systemic solution to systemic problems. That requires a certain amount of discussion and communication and knowledge already shared in the general community.

To play devil’s advocate, there’s a perception that people who make video games just get to play video games all day.

That’s wildly inaccurate actually. The vast majority of game developers are in a wide variety of different disciplines, everything from programming to design, art, audio work, composition, writing, QA testing, and community management. The vast majority of those people actually don’t usually spend a whole ton of time regularly playing the game. It’s important that game workers do play the game so they have a better sense of the whole project, but most of the time, you know, an artist is working in Photoshop or some kind of 3-D software package, and programmers are writing code and talking about how to create better systems. That’s the vast majority of the work, and a lot of it really is quite intensive, difficult work that requires a huge amount of collaboration. Yeah, people don’t just play games until they somehow magically are shippable.

The discipline that comes the closest to, quote, unquote, “just playing games all day” would be QA testers, who play through the games and test the games and try to find issues and bugs and flaws in the game so that the developers can fix it. But really, I would argue that’s not even playing the game in the same way as a player just enjoying their time. Really, it’s a very rigorous and difficult and stressful job where, for instance, you might go around banging your character’s head into every single wall in a room to make sure there’s no gaps where players fall through or some kind of crash occurs. Or you might open and close the door 60 times to make sure it never breaks. This isn’t necessarily an enjoyable activity, although there can be some fun to it. It’s not sitting around playing games all day, especially for people testing things like VR games where they have a headset on their head for eight hours a day with two tiny TV screens glaring into their eyeballs at about an inch away. That’s not easy labor, that is very difficult strenuous labor. People suffer from eye damage and migraines. It’s very difficult physical work, oftentimes. It’s certainly by no means, no matter how you slice it, just sitting around playing video games. It can very much be quite difficult work, even if it’s a white-collar, office worker job.

The initiative includes both tech and game workers. Does that include people at, for instance, Google or Facebook or tech companies like them?

I’m not going to talk about any particular campaign that we’re running, but CODE-CWA absolutely does encompass a wide variety of different kinds of companies and disciplines and workers across both the game and tech industries. Our campaigns are very much in both of those kinds of camps, and we organize a great variety of different companies, from small eight or ten person shops all the way up to large multinational corporations. And we organize people in many different disciplines, whether they’re QA testers or programmers or designers or artists or whether or not they’re contractors versus full time or freelance. All of these people deserve better conditions and a better say in how their companies are run and how the projects that they work on are made. We’re very much engaged in a wide spectrum of organizing in that same way.

I ask only because I feel like the working conditions at  a large unnamed tech platform with a campus that has free snacks and massages and whatever is a little different than, say, a game developer that’s crunching. I’m just wondering how the CWA is sort of bringing these separate sets of concerns together.

I think it’s mostly actually a misconception. There definitely are various companies or studios in both games and tech where workers are a little bit better treated and are paid much better, and on the surface, their conditions seem different. Ultimately, if you’re a worker and you have an employer, you will always have certain issues and things that you want to see fixed in the workplace. No one comes to work with a perfect job in a perfect situation. Even in some of these more affluent workforces, and I say relatively affluent workforces, there’s still issues of respect and communication and transparency in the processes of the company, and issues with having democratic input from the people actually making the products and platforms and software that we make. I think it’s important to have an actual worker-led voice in the direction of our companies, regardless of whether or not they if they’re making a living wage. I would also say both in games and tech, there’s a huge variety of different kinds of tech work going on and different kinds of workers. In both industries there are people who barely make a living wage, there are people who make minimum wage and have unstable employment and are treated terribly by their companies. And in both industries, there are workers who are more well treated, and they have fewer surface-level issues to organize around, sure. I think it’s important to think about those as well, and not just the traditional stereotype of cushy Silicon Valley programmers and things, because I wouldn’t say it’s a very realistic view of what the whole tech industry looks like. I also think about all the outsourcing contract shops all around North America, where people are treated much worse and they don’t have the same stability and safety and support at work. I think we need to have a bigger, broader, more holistic view of what the tech and game industries really are because neither of them are monolithic entities where any one group of workers are perfect off.

In terms of story, of bringing these issues to light and sort of discussing them publicly, do you have any sense of how much consumers care about this stuff? For instance, do people stop buying video games, if they hear about crunch?

Oftentimes, when players hear that a particular game company has poor labor conditions or is doing something unfortunate, there often will be a quick reaction to call for some kind of boycott. But the vast majority of workers — and we see this time after time, whenever something like this occurs — workers typically don’t want their their games boycotted because, yes, even if they’ve been exploited or hurt in the process of making them, they still worked their asses off to make them and they wish people would play them. Really, having consumers boycott things, while it is a point of leverage, it’s only useful to actually make change if it’s actually being called for and supported by the workers in that shop. I think it’s important to understand that the vast majority of workers don’t want that to happen. If a certain workforce did call for boycotts, that’s different because it’s part of a strategic move to build actual worker power and representation in the workplace, not just a reactionary call.

To more broadly answer your question, I think both in games and tech, people who use the software and experience the entertainment that we make, do care about the conditions of the workers. The vast majority of people I’ve spoken to on this are quite sympathetic and understand that people with more stable, healthy work lives will make better, more innovative work. In terms of tech, I think there’s a huge relation to thinking about organizing for the common good when we talk about organizing at work. So many people in the tech industry go to work and do the work that they do so that they can have a positive impact on the world and make the world a more communicative and connected and safer place. And so I think understanding that those values that we come to work for are very much about working conditions, and they’re working conditions that should be organized around. In that way, I think it can combine the needs and interests of the people who use our software and our platforms and our hardware, with the values and care that the workers put into the work. Tying those two together in the organizing process is important. Consumer and community values are essential to organizing.

Boycott aside, what can consumers do to express that support?

I think the number-one thing is listen to the groups of workers who are actively engaged in organizing, whether that’s different grassroots organizing groups, whether that’s workers who’ve organized into a union or in the process of organizing a union. Take your lead from those workers who are doing that work. In the meantime, short of being called on to help support either some organizing effort in a concrete way, doing work to be more educated about the conditions that workers face and the impact our media and our projects make on the world, and sharing that industry awareness within the communities that you’re already in. So if you’re a video-game player, learn about working conditions and learn about the grassroots movements to improve them, and then spread that in your communities and get people to talk about it and make it a part of how they approach the medium. Likewise, if you follow trends in tech and software and things like that, then I think you should learn about the impacts of software and tech development on some workers versus different kinds of subclasses of contractors, as well as about the impact our technology has on the world and how we could have a better, more positive relationship to the broader world.

What are some important milestones that you think you’ve already hit that sort of show progress on this front?

I guess the broader labor movement in tech? There’s been examples of labor organizing in the tech industry in North America, pretty much as far back as the industry itself. Notably in the ’80s, and ’90s, there were several different efforts to organize, to mixed success. While that kind of died down, I think the biggest change is making discussions of labor conditions and the values that we want to bring through our work a very popular discussion point is a huge change. It’s a very big shift. If you work in the tech industry now, you are aware that there are discussions around labor and discussions around the impact our technology has on the world, and how workers can build power to improve things, both at work and for the people who use our technology. That’s a fundamental shift; it’s not necessarily itself instantly changing conditions and changing the material context that we exist in, but it’s a fundamental first step to really making lasting change. The next step is comprehensive organizing that really is changing things. While we are in the early stages, there are still very notable examples of things being improved, whether that’s the various grassroots, worker-led efforts to bring the issues of climate change or data security and privacy, or AI ethics, or canceling ICE contracts with the government, or whatever the particular issue might be. Those worker-led efforts have in many instances affected some real change not just in opinion, but sometimes in policy, and I think it’s a sign of improvement — especially efforts by workers to fight things like forced arbitration. Forced arbitration helps companies essentially silence survivors of sexual assault and harassment and toxic workplace culture.

What are the biggest obstacles that you foresee as you move forward?

A couple of bigger obstacles are definitely a misconception that the labor movement belongs solely in industrial factories and coal mines and at the sites of most exploitation in our workforces. I think most people don’t understand that the form of building worker power through a union is a tool. It is a single tool that can be changed and used for the specific needs and conditions of specific workplaces and specific workforces. What I mean by that is, it can be used really by any group of workers to have a better sense of democracy and transparency and communication and support in the workplace, to affect change that they think is important. Even if there are workers at a certain shop that are very comfortable in terms of wages and traditional material conditions, there are still reasons to use the union form to build democracy and power and leverage around issues that they still care about. Issues like communication, democracy, transparency, ethics and values, things like that. Understanding that the union forum really is something that is malleable and flexible, that’s a concept we need to do a better job of talking about, because it really can and should be used by all sorts of people to make change.

I would also say, definitely in games in tech, a lot of people come to work seeing it as a dream job. There’s a huge amount of passion that goes into their work. I think that’s wonderful. I myself have been incredibly passionate about my career and the jobs that I’ve done and the projects I’ve worked on. I think it’s important to keep that passion but not let it be a source of opening ourselves up to expectation from our employer, which is often the case. I think we need to do a better job of overcoming some of those social obstacles, of letting ourselves open up to exploitation because we’re just very passionate about our work. I think we need to get more realistic and understand that yes, we can be passionate, but we also can have better, more stable jobs where we are really respected, and that the direction of our company is shaped by us, the people who actually make the things our company produces.

How confident do you feel about the initiative?

I would say I’m incredibly confident because we have way too much work to do. Frankly, we could have ten times the staff and there would still be infinite amounts of work to be done. Labor organizing is a never-ending thing. My email inbox has been full for days and it’s a constant struggle to keep it up to date. There’s a massive amount of interest in this and people all over North America are getting equipped with the knowledge and training experience and advice that it takes to build a really strong, comprehensive union campaign. I’m very confident that way, I’m very optimistic in that way, even though there’s a massive amount of work to be done, and it’s on the scale of years and decades, and not simply just weeks and months. I think we have to have that very long-term, very sober view of just the sheer amount of effort that it’s going to take to organize this industry in full. And yet there’s a great amount of optimism to be had in the kind of energy and excitement and the sheer number of people who are wanting to get involved.

Is there anything I didn’t ask you about that you wanted to speak on?

There’s been lots of discussion lately about discrimination and pay and benefits and how it relates to gender and race. And I think it’s important to note that with a collectively bargained union contract, if the workers set out pay scales based on title and experience level, once that contract goes into effect, you would see wage and pay discrimination based off of gender and race almost instantly disappear. We need to be thinking not just about advocating about issues that we all care about, but really finding systemic solutions to systemic problems that we’re all facing across the whole industry. Discussing issues in that way is an important thing that most people don’t talk about. But I think it’s worth really emphasizing.

Given what you said about crunches being a social pressure issue as much as it is an economic one, what sort of systemic changes can be made around that?

That’s a question I hear a lot from workers and other people. I don’t think organizing a union is an instant silver bullet for eliminating the concept of crunch. And frankly, quite a lot of people in the industry, myself included, are at times very willing to put in large number hours to get something out the door at a level of quality that we’re proud of. By standing in a union with our co-workers, we have the ability to — if we don’t want to or we don’t think it’s appropriate to crunch in an unhealthy way — raise that voice and those concerns and push back on that a little bit. Even if people are willing to crunch, at the very least people should never go unpaid for that overtime. Workers should be rewarded for putting extreme amounts of effort into their work, and we should make it a financial incentive for the company to find more sustainable, less intensive ways to make our products. Having some financial aspects in the contract that can tamper the default approach in our industry, which is just go instantly to crunch. It becomes very much a planned thing, because they know they can get away with it, and they know they don’t have to pay extra for it beyond buying pizza every once in a while. Giving the employers a real financial incentive to think a little bit more sustainably, think a little healthier about how to plan the production of our games is an important aspect of that as well.