In an interview with GamesIndustry, Take Two Interactive CEO, Strauss Zelnick was very frank about unionization in the games industry, saying, ‘hard to imagine’ it happening.
The insulting part about this is the justification he gives, Zelnick elaborated by arguing that “There are 220,000 or so people employed in the US video game business,’ he said. ‘They make about $100,000 on average, maybe more. It’s hard to imagine what would motivate that crew to unionize.”
Keep in mind this is the same guy who said loot boxes aren’t gambling.
This obsessively greed-driven attitude is something that, surprising to the likes of Strauss Zelnick and Bobby Kotick, isn’t the sole motivator for why people are in the games industry. And acting like it is sounds a lot like Zelnick projecting his own obsessions onto employees whom he doesn’t speak for.
The idea that the amount of money thrown at a problem can stop unionization, while also refusing to acknowledge deeper systemic issues, is absurd. Crunch is a thing, and it needs to stop. And it’s very clear that there’s no impetus for companies to do that voluntarily. Even the subject of this overall interview is Zelnick trying to justify shorter development cycles, which could mean more crunch.
He also made a point about demand for labor affecting the impetus to organize, which is true to some extent, “typically unions have been most beneficial when there were more workers than there were jobs,” this is because the unions would typically negotiate for higher wages, and firms would compensate by hiring fewer workers at a higher wage. Firms could take a profit cut and extend more jobs to more workers, but people like Kotick and Zelnick would rather fire hundreds of people despite record revenues.
Union membership has steadily declined in the US, and with that has come a decline in the power of unions as a whole. Many US states have enacted “right to work” laws which were aimed squarely at weakening union bargaining power by allowing workers to opt-out of union actions or paying of dues. This tactic played on the nature of people to worry about themselves first, and given the highly competitive nature of the labor market, people tended to protect their own wages rather than risking them in union negotiations. This meant that unions were seen as less useful over successive generations. This effort was of course helped by decades of anti-union propaganda and continued union-busting by companies large and small. Today, even mentioning the word union is grounds for firing and continued harassment in the US by some companies, like retail giant Wal-Mart.
This itself has led to a self-fulfilling tragedy where reduced reliance on unions and group negotiating power has led to increased incidents of labor abuses of many kinds, with wage theft being incredibly common.
Zelnick was right about one more thing though, just not in the way he hopes. Zelnick said, ‘”Unions tend to develop when labor relations are not typically non-existent.” Problem is, that actually describes a lot of the problems with the games industry. Horrifically exploitative crunch culture is pervasive. As is harassment, discrimination and other toxic nonsense. If anything, these conditions will put more pressure in favor of unionizing, no matter how much money corporate schmucks think they can throw at the problem.
It should surprise no one who has been paying attention to these kinds of labor issues that people will be much more diligent in calling out labor complaints and issues, even with the biggest names. And as efforts to fight back against “crunch culture” become more militant and noticeable, it’s likely that this take won’t age well.