An Open Letter To Game Developers From America's Largest Labour Organisation

Illustration: Jim Cooke

Editors note: Given ongoing issues in the games industry, the AFL-CIO recently reached out to Kotaku about addressing the people who make games. The AFL-CIO represents more than 12 million workers in the United States across more than 50 labour unions (including the Writers Guild of America, of which Kotaku US and its sister sites’ staffs are members).

This letter from secretary-treasurer Liz Shuler is the group’s first major public statement about organising game developers.

If an investor was searching for the country’s most explosively successful commodity, they might look to the ground for natural resources or to Wall Street for some new financial instrument. But, the most meteoric success story can be found virtually all around us — in the booming video game industry.

Growing by double digits, US video game sales reached $US43 billion ($61 billion) in 2018, about 3.6 times greater than the film industry’s record-breaking box office.

It’s a stunning accomplishment — one built by legions of tireless game developers. There’s nothing more powerful than throwing yourself into your craft, putting in day after day of passionate, hard work.

Through the fog of sleepless nights that fade into morning, piles of crumpled Red Bull cans and incessant pressure from management, you have accomplished the unthinkable. You’ve built new worlds, designed new challenges and ushered in a new era of entertainment.

Now it’s time for industry bosses to start treating you with hard-earned dignity and respect.

Executives are always quick to brag about your work. It’s the talk of every industry corner office and boardroom. They pay tribute to the games that capture our imaginations and seem to defy economic gravity. They talk up the latest innovations in virtual reality and celebrate record-smashing releases, as your creations reach unparalleled new heights.

My question is this: What have you gotten in return? While you’re putting in crunch time, your bosses are ringing the opening bell on Wall Street. While you’re creating some of the most groundbreaking products of our time, they’re pocketing billions. While you’re fighting through exhaustion and putting your soul into a game, Bobby Kotick and Andrew Wilson are toasting to “their” success.

They get rich. They get notoriety. They get to be crowned visionaries and regarded as pioneers.

What do you get?

Outrageous hours and inadequate paychecks. Stressful, toxic work conditions that push you to your physical and mental limits. The fear that asking for better means risking your dream job.

We’ve heard the painful stories of those willing to come forward, including one developer who visited the emergency room three times before taking off from work.

Developers at Rockstar Games recently shared stories of crunch time that lasted for months and even years in order to satisfy outrageous demands from management, delivering a game that banked their bosses $US725 million ($1 billion) in its first three days.

This is a moment for change. It won’t come from CEOs. It won’t come from corporate boards. And it won’t come from any one person.

Change will happen when you gain leverage by joining together in a strong union. And it will happen when you use your collective voice to bargain for a fair share of the wealth you create every day.

No matter where you work, bosses will only offer fair treatment when you stand together and demand it. Fortunately, the groundwork is already being laid as grassroots groups like Game Workers Unite embrace the power of solidarity and prove that you don’t have to accept a broken, twisted status quo.

You have the power to demand a stake in your industry and a say in your economic future. What’s more, you have millions of brothers and sisters across the country standing with you.

Your fight is our fight, and we look forward to welcoming you into our union family. Whether we’re mainlining caffeine in Santa Monica, clearing tables in Chicago or mining coal in West Virginia, we deserve to collect nothing less than the full value of our work.

Liz Shuler is secretary-treasurer of the 12.5 million-member AFL-CIO, the US’ largest federation of labour unions.


    A nice speech, but they need people to join en-mass and for the US to have less shitty labour laws before they'll actually accomplish anything.

      Ah yes but to accomplish that, to actually get to a position where they're big enough to influence government policy (something conservative governments around the world have for years being trying to convince us is a terrible thing, with varying degrees of success depending on who you ask of for an opinion on unions) they have to start off small. I'm just glad to see they're actually reacting to all these horror stories over the last few years as opposed to simply giving up and saying "shit's fucked and it ain't gonna change" like we've seen happen far too often.

        It's not just conservatives that are anti-union.

        Youll find a lot of the more liberal companies especially in silicon valley are quite anti-union. I mean the owner of BuzzFeed was anti-union for his workers.

          True dat, business just plays politics and generally hates unions.

          It's amazing how many people are liberal until it starts hurting their outrageous profit margins.

          Don't listen to CEOs who wear cool kid clothes and send cars into space. They are out to squeeze money from you. At any cost to you.

          Join your union.

      But labour laws aren't the American way, remember?
      Capitalism is all about the greed and the few.

        You can be capitalist and not run your workforce into the ground.
        You can be socialist and work people to death.

          You can wear the badge, but capitalism requires growth without limit as a fundamental philosophy. It requires you to take as much as you can get and then find a way to take more.

          Anyone who claims to be a capitalist has an agenda of finding more profit at any cost.

    Usually I'm all for unions. Best thing to happen in my industry. We'd be screwed without it.
    But man there's some weird fine print in what they've proposed with diversity quotas when they should be focusing on workers rights.

      Unless you are white, male, young and able bodied, it may be that "diversity quotas" or, more properly, better and fairer hiring practices are the cornerstone of your rights as a worker.

      The early days of organised labour had to concentrate on making working conditions less dangerous for the existing workforce, and ensuring things like an 8 hour work day, sick leave and so forth. We've now come far enough in a lot of industries, in Australia at least, that we can start to look at some of the larger structural problems in the current and potential work force, like casualisation and covert discrimination (like not hiring young women who might later need maternity leave, or mysteriously making them redundant when they ask for it ... ). This is not a bad thing.

        Silicon Valley is already one of the most diverse industry's bar the particular role of programming which is already changing without diversity programs.
        Are you telling me you walk into an interview as a black man, and you finish the interview programming challenge 2 minutes quicker than a white guy, and also you have a more full and competent project demo's for show, you wouldn't get hired? I really don't think so.
        Here is everyone (not just white guys) who are doing unpaid overtime, having 4 hours sleep, losing weekends and getting axed at the end of the game development cycle and bullying and harassment issues that get handled internally so fucking poorly... I think there's bigger issues at hand for a union to concentrate on.

          Silicon Valley (and the tech industry in general) is below the US national average in diversity, they're not a leader in that respect. As a median percentage of all workers across all companies:

          Black: Silicon Valley (2.5%), national (12%), population (13.4%)
          Latino: Silicon Valley (5.6%), national (16%), population (18.1%)
          Asian: Silicon Valley (30.4%), national (5%), population (5.8%)
          White: Silicon Valley (56.9%), national (64%), population (60.7%)

          Women: Silicon Valley (27.8%), national (47%)
          Men: Silicon Valley (72.2%), national (53%)

          Sourced from the Centre for Investigative Reporting (for Silicon Valley), Bureau of Labor Statistics (for national workforce), US Census Bureau (for population).

          That's not to say diversity hasn't improved. There's been a fairly consistent drive over the last eight years to try to fix the tech industry's diversity problem that has shown some improvement, but it still has a long way to go. The top industries for diversity in the United States are (in descending order) healthcare, education, retail/distribution, professional services and financial services.

          As a personal observation, when my industry's beaten by even financial services, that's a worry.

            Hey, the stats don't lie and I'll have to eat my hat for that.
            Although I believe strongly in having a fair workforce, I still believe forced diversity quotas at the employment level is the wrong way to go about things. Nice work BTW.

              Quotas are a delicate topic. They can be taken too far, but I do think affirmative action has its place, with its positive cascading effect on changing social norms about gender roles in the workplace. That's a long conversation that I'm not keen to get into at the moment, but perhaps another time.

          Your interview test question is an interesting one: your straw black man is clearly better qualified than your straw white man. His portfolio's better, for starters, for whatever definition of better the straw interviewer is using. That guy might get hired.

          But if there are two candidates for an interview and one has a Caucasian sounding name and one has a Middle-Eastern sounding name, guess who gets the interview in the first place, statistically speaking? And if there are 80 resumes and you want to interview 20 applicants, study after study has shown unconscious bias towards people who look like the interviewer. My comment was about Australian unionism, and I agree that here, as everywhere the games industry is a clusterfracas and badly need to unionise. But the union movement in this country, as a whole, is right to look both at putting out the immediate fires and the larger issues in the labour market.

      The ability to work in your chosen field regardless of race/gender/sexual preference is a workers' rights issue.

    I look forward to seeing the inevitable reaction to this, I doubt it's been well received at the top end.

    Do it game developers, having a union was the best thing to happen for us nurses.

      I think unions are the best thing for many industries... But, uh, nursing union actually sucks if you're talking about in Australia?

        Nursing union sucks?! What Murdochian fantasy are you living in? Try getting sick, going to hospital for an extended stay and talking to some nurses bud...

          I have. Nurses are fantastic!
          But their union doesn't seem to get as much shit done as other unions do and unfair things just keep on going unresolved for years.
          Like quickly, why do Victorian nurses get paid less than nsw nurses? There's a hospital near here that sits near the border and staff one side are making more than the other just by some almost arbitrary line. It sucks.
          Teachers union, builders etc fight hard for pay rises and nurses union kinda just goes... 'oh no, we are happy with what we got'

    The return developers get for the long hours they put into games should increase for sure. But their is nothing wrong with crunch time and long working hours.

    Average Chef for example earns upto $60,000 less then the average Game Programmer (American Wages) yet no one has anything to say about these 100+ hour work weeks in that industry.

    To put out a letter stating How much Red Dead earned in 3 days then saying "wheres your share" is absolutely rediculous. Your income is not dictated by the income or profits of the company ,

      Your income is not dictated by the income or profits of the company

      No, but it should be and I think that's the point. Fair work conditions should see workers (the ones actually generating that profit) maintain a reasonable percentage of the company's income after operating expenses. If a company has enough profit to give executives multi-million dollar salaries, they should be able to offer something to the rank-and-file too, and not doing that is essentially exploitation. Never mind the obvious conflict of interest when executives are the ones in charge of deciding their own salaries and bonuses.

      But their is nothing wrong with crunch time and long working hours.

      There is, though. It's been shown that productivity collapses past a certain point, with (for example) a Stanford study showing productivity peaks at 40 hours and falls sharply past 50 hours a week (eg. people who worked 70 hours produced nothing more than those who worked 55 hours) - this is referred to as the 'productivity cliff'.

      Productivity aside, longer working weeks also contribute to multiple health problems, especially in sedentary jobs (eg. offices) that compound the loss of productivity by adding in sick leave, burnout/attrition and more. The overall impact of long working weeks is a net negative to society as a whole.

      There are fundamental limits to human capacity, it doesn't matter if you're a chef or a software engineer or anyone else.

      There absolutely *is* something wrong with eternal crunch, and eternal long working hours. I understand that everyone has to put in overtime once in a while, especially in a job with deadlines. But assuming your workers will routinely work 12 hour days 6 days a week, and ramp that up to 18 hour days all week long, while being paid for 40 hours, with neither paid overtime nor time in lieu, is exploitative bullshit. Whether you are cooking food, making games, working in an emergency department, teaching or bronzing widgets you deserve to be safe on the job and adequately compensated for your labour.

      The owners of these companies are making obscene amounts of money while their work force is overworked, underpaid and often injured or made ill. And saying "well, it happens in other industries too, so these people have nothing to complain about" just doesn't hold water. It shouldn't happen anywhere. Where it does happen, people need to unionise and demand better of their corporate overlords.

      And Ezard got a front-page article in the paper on the weekend about chronic underpayment of his staff; there's been a lot of attention on it of late, in the food-service industry, and the truly awful conditions young chefs have to work in (not to mention young front-of-house staff and the like) are finally having a light shone on them.

    It'd be nice if there was finally an IT union. A massive industry with no representation still baffles me...

      There's groups like "Professionals Australia" which covers IT. I was a part of it for a while and they offer some useful services

    Ewwww Unions. Here is my take, they work fantastic for some areas/professions.

    Unfortunately I d

      Yeah, teachers unions are valuable in many ways, getting their members a fair shake so they can teach folks how to actually write...

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