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First Microsoft union formed by ZeniMax workers

300 QA testers have voted in favour of forming ZeniMax Workers United, as the tech sector faces increasing calls for transparency and equitable conditions

Microsoft logo suspended above a conference floor

Workers at Microsoft-owned ZeniMax Studios have voted overwhelmingly in favour of forming a union, becoming the first group within Microsoft to do so.

Approximately 300 quality assurance (QA) testers at Microsoft-owned ZeniMax studios have voted to unionise, in affiliation with the Communication Workers of America (CWA).

The CWA said a “supermajority” of the QA workers voted to join the union through an online portal, or by signing a union authorisation card, and that Microsoft has officially recognised the union.

Negotiations between ZeniMax Workers United, which represents workers in Maryland and Texas, and Microsoft are expected to begin shortly. To date, union demands have revolved around workload, fair wages, and transparency.

“Microsoft has lived up to its commitment to its workers and let them decide for themselves whether they want a union,” said CWA president Chris Shelton.

“Other video game and tech giants have made a conscious choice to attack, undermine, and demoralise their own employees when they join together to form a union. Microsoft is charting a different course which will strengthen its corporate culture and ability to serve its customers and should serve as a model for the industry and as a blueprint for regulators.”

Microsoft acquired ZeniMax studios in 2021 for $7.5 billion in a move that brought popular gaming titles such as The Elder Scrolls, Doom and Fallout into its control. In December 2022, Microsoft committed to neutrality towards the unionisation efforts and pledged to accept the result of the vote. 

"In light of the results of the recent unionisation vote, we recognise the CWA as the bargaining representative for the quality assurance employees at ZeniMax," said Microsoft in a statement.

"We look forward to engaging in good faith negotiations as we work towards a collective bargaining agreement."

After its official formation, the group has become the largest union within the gaming industry. Video game QA testing is considered a competitive field to enter, and workers within the sector can face long work hours known as ‘crunch’ in the final stages of game development.

Calls within the gaming industry for representation and improved work conditions have been growing in recent years, as the sector lags behind the benefits offered in other parts of the tech industry.

Workers at games firm Proletariat Inc. filed to form their own CWA-affiliated union, known as the Proletariat Workers Alliance, in December. The union has tweeted a number of demands including improved benefits and calls for better progression opportunities.

Proletariat Inc is a subsidiary of Activision-Blizzard, which Microsoft is attempting to acquire for $68.7 billion. In June, The New York Times reported that Microsoft had committed itself to neutrality in the unionisation efforts of Activision workers if the deal went through, though the FTC and CMA are assessing the deal for its potential limiting of competition within the gaming industry.

Changing demands in the tech sector

A number of workers in the tech sector are seeking wage increases and further commitments by employers, as the cost of living increases and recessionary cuts put job security at risk.

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In April 2022, Amazon workers at a Staten Island fulfilment centre unionised, a first for the company, and against structural opposition within the organisation.

Workers at Google’s parent company Alphabet also unionised in 2021, with the Alphabet Workers Union (AWU) having grown from 400 members at the time of launch to approximately 800 at the time of writing. 

Work demands in the tech industry have been questioned recently at companies such as Twitter. After his acquisition of the social media firm in October, Elon Musk halved the company’s workforce and demanded ‘hardcore’ working hours and intensity from those remaining, which led to a mass resignation of dissatisfied employees.

Shortly after, a number of employee benefits were rescinded such as allowances for child care and quarterly team outings, with Musk citing the poor financial situation of the company as the cause for change.

A number of tech companies have similarly engaged in cuts, as Meta fired 11,000 workers after rocky financial results, and cloud communications platform Twilio reduced its workforce by 11% in September 2022.

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