By SAM P.

Since at least July 2021, a serious fightback against sexual abuse of workers at Activision Blizzard (ABK), one of the largest video-game publishers in the world, has been ongoing. 

The first public signs that this campaign existed came out when a series of lawsuits were filed by former employees and by federal regulators. These lawsuits revealed a horrific culture of workplace abuse, including one incident in which a victim of this abuse committed suicide after sexually explicit photos of her were circulated by her abuser. The severity of the workplace culture, and in particular the story about the woman who committed suicide, propelled the story into the press, and even mainstream news has been covering the story.

The company’s response to the situation was two-faced and evasive. In public statements and press conferences, top executives expressed horror and made big promises about how they intended to fix this culture. However, internally, executives were circulating memos that disputed the authenticity of the claims in the lawsuit and asserted that the company essentially did not need to change. These statements were leaked to the press, sparking even more public outcry and coverage.

Afterwards, information came out that the most inflammatory of these memos, supposedly written by one of the few women in an executive position at the company, had in fact been ghost written by a man and that she had simply signed her name to it. To add insult to injury, the company hired a union-busting law firm called WilmerHale for the supposed job of helping to institute the broad changes to their practice, which they had declared unnecessary in internal memos.

Fight against sexual harassment sparks labor struggle

The PR disaster that this marks for the company facilitated worker organizing. Shortly after the leaks, a public letter signed by roughly a thousand workers at the company was published. In it they declared the company’s response “abhorrent and insulting,” and stated:

“Our company executives have claimed that actions will be taken to protect us, but in the face of legal action—and the troubling official responses that followed—we no longer trust that our leaders will place employee safety above their own interests. … To claim this is a ‘truly meritless and irresponsible lawsuit,’ while seeing so many current and former employees speak out about their own experiences regarding harassment and abuse, is simply unacceptable. … We stand with all our friends, teammates, and colleagues, as well as the members of our dedicated community, who have experienced mistreatment or harassment of any kind. We will not be silenced, we will not stand aside, and we will not give up until the company we love is a workplace we can all feel proud to be a part of again. We will be the change.”

After the publication of this open letter, an organization called A Better ABK/ABK Workers Alliance called the first walkout of workers at the company and held a July 28 demonstration outside of their offices. The PR disaster was such that management felt compelled to allow the walkout and demonstration, which was organized openly. Hundreds of workers directly walked out, and a majority of workers who work from home signed off. This walkout served as an opportunity to make public the demands for dealing with employer misconduct which were:

  1. An end to mandatory arbitration clauses in all employee contracts, current and future. Arbitration clauses protect abusers and limit the ability of victims to seek restitution.
  2. The adoption of recruiting, interviewing, hiring, and promotion policies designed to improve representation among employees at all levels, agreed upon by employees in a company-wide Diversity, Equity & Inclusion organization. Current practices have led to women, in particular women of color and transgender women, non-binary people, and other marginalized groups that are vulnerable to gender discrimination not being hired fairly for new roles when compared to men.
  3. Publication of data on relative compensation (including equity grants and profit sharing), promotion rates, and salary ranges for employees of all genders and ethnicities at the company. Current practices have led to aforementioned groups not being paid or promoted fairly.
  4. Empower a company-wide Diversity, Equity, & Inclusion task force to hire a third party to audit ABK’s reporting structure, HR department, and executive staff. It is imperative to identify how current systems have failed to prevent employee harassment, and to propose new solutions to address these issues.

Of these demands, workers have already won an end to forced arbitration, which was removed from all contracts on Oct. 28.

As organizing spreads, company attacks workers

After the initial walkout announcing the existence of the ABK organizers, organizing around these issues deepened. The group has spoken publicly on every aspect of the company’s attempts at shallow counter-reform, and publicizing every genuine win they accomplish. The organization has received an echo at other companies infamous for abusive workplace culture as well, with workers at Ubisoft forming a sister organization to the ABK Workers Alliance.

The union-busting Wilmer Hale’s efforts at smashing this campaign have largely floundered, in part due to its very public nature. A leader at ABKWA told the industry publication ESports.GG in an interview:

“Bobby [Kotick, the Blizzard CEO] knew that there were spaces forming up. … But he also has very few resources at his disposal at the moment. He’s been relying heavily on WilmerHale to keep us clamped down. And WilmerHale legit sucks at it. … A Better ABK started discussing a lot of organizing stuff, even going so far as to openly discuss unionization on public channels. … And it was weird, because no one was stopping it. Well it turns out, they weren’t even aware of it. There was so much communication, it was impossible to monitor them all.”

Activision CEO Bobby Kottick has been trying to present himself as a ruling moderate working to fix the problems at the company. This is a common trick of the bosses during union campaigns. Setting up one side of management as “pro-worker” and “trying to change the company” is a version of the classic “good cop/bad cop” strategy.

Struggle reemerges

The relative lull in the conflict was broken last week by a major investigative story published in The Wall Street Journal. The Nov. 16 exposé revealed that Kottick had lied in virtually every public statement he made about the situation at the company. Not only did he know about the general workplace culture at the company, but there is documented proof that he knew about many of the specific incidents referenced in the lawsuits and did not disclose them to the board of directors. The investigation also discovered several direct accusations of harassment and misconduct against Bobby Kottick himself, which he has worked to hide.

One particularly gruesome incident is described in the WSJ article: “In 2006, one of [Kottick’s] assistants complained that he had harassed her, including by threatening in a voice mail to have her killed, according to people familiar with the matter.”

Within minutes of the story being published, a new walkout was initiated that took on the character of a one-day wildcat strike. Initially, only a couple of dozen people stopped work, but it quickly expanded to hundreds of workers walking off the job at the company’s campus in Irvine, Calif., and at its offices in Minnesota, and calling for the CEO’s resignation. This walkout represented a major escalation of the campaign—both in the militancy of its tactics, and in the fact that the leaders of ABK workers alliance now acknowledged that union organizing is something they have been discussing throughout their existence.

After the second walkout, the companies’ board of directors declared their support for Bobby Koticks, citing a zero tolerance on harassment they claim he recently implemented. This claimed zero-tolerance policy has become a widely circulated joke among people sympathetic to the workers at ABK, given how by any reasonable standard such a policy would apply to Kottick himself.

The workers’ response to the board was to escalate their calls to include the resignation of board members who stand by Kottick, charging that they are complicit with the company’s culture of abuse.

Victory can open floodgates

It is essential to understand this campaign in the context of the technology sector, and specifically, gaming. The ABK actions could be a landmark step in the process of organizing workers in the tech industry. The structure of the video-game industry is such that major publishers own large numbers of development studios. While they directly employ relatively few people, they often indirectly employ thousands to tens of thousands of workers. The publishers can shut down on a whim the studios they own. In effect, the publishers act as gatekeepers against organizing by holding the threat of lockouts against workers who unionize at the developer level.

A victory for organizers at a major publisher like Activision Blizzard has the potential to seriously change the equation for workers across the industry and provide a model for future organizing. Even a defeat, at this point, would still be the kind of defeat that can provide an example to other workers about the path of activism they need to follow.

Photo: Workers walk out at Activision Blizzard’s campus in Irvine, Calif., on July 28. (Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times / REX / Shutterstock)