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Embattled Activision Blizzard to employees: 'consider the consequences' of unionizing

An Activision Blizzard Booth during the Electronic Entertainment Expo in Los Angeles.
Jae C. Hong
An Activision Blizzard Booth during the Electronic Entertainment Expo in Los Angeles.

Activision Blizzard is facing criticism for discouraging labor organizing after the video game giant wrote an email to employees imploring them to "take time to consider the consequences" of pushing ahead with an effort to unionize.

Brian Bulatao, a former Trump administration official who is now the chief administrative officer at Activision Blizzard, sent an email to the company's 9,500 employees on Friday addressing a campaign led by the Communications Workers of America to organize the workplace.

The union push is seen as the latest challenge for company leaders

The company behind video games like "World of Warcraft," "Call of Duty" and "Candy Crush" has been engulfed in crisis since July, when California's civil rights agency sued over an alleged "frat boy" workplace culture where sexual harassment allegedly runs rampant. The suit also claimed women are paid less than their male counterparts.

In his companywide note, Bulatao said employees' forming a union is not the most productive way to reshape workplace culture.

"We ask only that you take time to consider the consequences of your signature on the binding legal document presented to you by the CWA," Bulatao wrote in the internal email, which was reviewed by NPR. "Achieving our workplace culture aspirations will best occur through active, transparent dialogue between leaders and employees that we can act upon quickly."

Union experts say the email's intention was clear

To union organizers, the message represented an attempt to fend off labor organizing through intimidation.

"Instead of responding to their workers' concerns, they've opted to blast the most tired anti-union talking points straight from the union busting script," said Tom Smith, the CWA's national organizing director.

Catherine Fisk, an expert on labor law at the University of California, Berkeley, told NPR that the company's message appears to walk the line between an illegal threat and legal persuasion — but she said the takeaway is clear.

"The goal is to sound both menacing (consider the consequences) and friendly (keep our ability to have transparent dialogue), while avoiding making a clear threat," Fisk said. "Threatening employees is illegal, but cautioning them is not."

Activision Blizzard did not return a request for comment.

Employees have increasingly taken joint actions

In recent weeks, Activision Blizzard employees have staged walkouts over contract workers being laid off and the revelation that CEO Bobby Kotickwas aware of accusations of sexual misconduct at the company but chose not to act for years. Some shareholders of the $45 billion company have called on Kotick to resign.

Besides the ongoing legal battle with California regulators, the Securities and Exchange Commission has also launched an investigation of the company.

Unions are practically nonexistent in the video game industry, so the CWA's campaign to get workers to sign union cards is a significant, if preliminary, move toward unionization. Typically, in order for the National Labor Relations Board to conduct an election, 30% of workers must sign a petition or union cards, indicating they want a union to represent them.

In his email to employees, Bulatao wrote — in bold letters — that Activision Blizzard leadership supports employees' right to make their own decision about "whether or not to join a union."

An organizer says she faced 'internal pushback'

Jessica Gonzalez, a senior test analyst at Activision Blizzard who helps run BetterABK, a Twitter account that supports unionizing workers at the company, said she believes the company's management is going to ramp up efforts to extinguish the union push.

"When I started organizing, there was a lot of internal pushback," Gonzalez told NPR. "I was getting vilified. It took a toll on my mental health," she said.

Gonzalez resigned from the company on Friday, but she said her work supporting the union effort at the company will continue. She recently set up a GoFundMe to raise money for colleagues engaged in a work stoppage demanding that Kotick and other top leaders step down.

"I care enough about the people I work with. It's the people who make the freaking games so great. We should be nurturing that passion and not exploiting that passion," she said. "Culture comes from the top down, but Bobby Kotick has had 30 years to fix the culture. It hasn't happened yet."

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Bobby Allyn is a business reporter at NPR based in San Francisco. He covers technology and how Silicon Valley's largest companies are transforming how we live and reshaping society.