Introducing GWSC, and the Volunteer Wing of the Labor Movement in Games

Robin LoBuglio
Game Workers of Southern California
19 min readDec 18, 2020

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Hi there! My name is Robin Trach, and I’m a game worker who serves on the steering committee of Game Workers of Southern California, formally GWU Los Angeles and GWU Orange County — we’ll get to that in a moment! I’m here to talk about some changes within our organization, but more importantly about the future of the labor movement in games. This post is a few things — a reintroduction of our org, an abridged history of the labor movement in games, a taxonomy of the groups that make up the movement, and a call to action. The unionization battlefield in 2020 is complex, and with this article I hope to help you navigate the endless soup of labor acronyms — GWU, CWA, GWSC, TWC, VOW, SAG-AFTRA, IWW, IATSE, TWC, what the hell do they all mean?

I’ll start by frontloading an announcement — the LA and Orange County chapters of Game Workers Unite have combined to form “Game Workers of Southern California” (GWSC), a new organization that remains allied with GWU but is operationally independent. That sentence won’t mean much to the average game worker — a rose by any other name, potato / potahto, etc. — and in many ways it’s not a huge change. We continue to be a group fighting for the formation of unions in the games industry, and still strive to incorporate international solidarity in our organizing practice.

Nevertheless, I’d like to use this re-introduction as an opportunity to answer questions that are certainly relevant to all game workers, whether in SoCal or anywhere else in the world:

  • What is the state of the movement to unionize games?
  • How can I create a union in my workplace?
  • What are the different groups that can help me unionize?
  • How can I get involved and support the movement?

Curious? Then read on!

The History of the Labor Movement in Games

If you’re a game worker and you’re pissed off about how you’ve been treated, you’re probably aware of the burgeoning movement to unionize the industry. For a long time this movement’s flagbearer was an organization called Game Workers Unite (GWU), a band of volunteer organizers which formed in response to an anti-union roundtable at GDC 2018. We were successful beyond anything we hoped: the panel moderator found herself alone in a room with 200 pro-union voices, the momentum received widespread press coverage, and we quickly heard from game workers across the world who wanted in.

After GDC the founders of GWU began building a system of local “GWU chapters” in cities and countries around the world. These were to serve as local organizing hubs for a given region — each chapter was to gather workers and connect them with organizer training, resources, a community, and direct organizing support. Many of the GWU’s founders moved their focus to participating in their local chapter, while others (with some overlap) stayed on in what became “GWU International.” The International served the dual purpose of being a loose connective tissue between chapters, as well as a general Discord chat server for those interested in unionism. It had its own small set of dedicated volunteers to run a Twitter account, put on a global organizer training program, and moderate the Discord, but there was no central leadership body directing the activities of the mostly independent chapters. In reality, what people thought of as “Game Workers Unite” was actually dozens of distinct orgs operating within the same movement — GWU International, GWU Montreal, GWU Los Angeles, United Kingdom, Australia, Argentina, Boston, and so forth.

Born out of a protest surrounding an anti-union panel at GDC 2018, GWU quickly grew into a movement that expanded far beyond the context of that conference

There’s an important distinction between these organizations and unions. The raw definition of “union” is two or more coworkers who use collective action on the job to better their circumstances. This can be an independent group of people within a single workplace, but most modern unions contain thousands of workers across hundreds of workplaces, connected by an infrastructure of staff organizers and administrators. It was the goal of GWU chapters to create new unions and help existing ones expand to the games industry, but for the most part those chapters were not unions themselves. Each chapter was composed of unpaid volunteer organizers from across multiple workplaces in their region; many members also belonged to a union campaign in their own workplace, but those campaigns were organizationally distinct from the GWU chapter.

This all sounds a bit semantic, and it is. Why should you care? In 2018 the distinction mattered less because there were no unions in the games industry, but that’s changed in the years since. Established unions saw our energy, got in touch, and started organizing! This has resulted in dozens of underground campaigns, and just a few months ago the CWA-affiliated “VOW” strikers — organized game writers at Voltage Entertainment — won the first ever strike in the North American games industry. GWU International and the GWU chapters are still here doing the work and spreading the word, but from our own success we’ve become a proportionately much smaller part of the labor movement in games. Where we were once the sole flagbearer of the movement to unionize, we are now simply the volunteer wing of something much larger than any of us.

Voltage Organized Workers (VOW) is a group of writers that went on strike in early 2020 and won an average pay increase of 78%

What Does it Mean to “Unionize the Industry”?

I’ll get to what I mean about “the volunteer wing of the labor movement,” but to understand how we fit into the landscape you should probably know how unions are even formed. There’s no one path, but in North America the process usually looks a bit like this:

  1. Two or more fed-up coworkers decide they want to unionize their company.
  2. That group forms what’s called a “campaign” — they begin to hold regular meetings, and start honing their desire to unionize into a specific set of actionables.
  3. The campaign begins to map, chart, and document the structure of their company — what are the different departments and how are they staffed, who answers to who, etc.
  4. The campaign begins systematically reaching out to their fellow workers. This takes the form of one-on-one meetings (“1on1s”), where workers are able to share the issues they care about and learn about unionization. These 1on1s both grow the campaign and help inform its objectives. Many newly recruited workers will then go on to run their own 1on1s, enabling exponential growth.
  5. At some point between 1 and 4, the campaign usually (but not always) partners with an established union infrastructure in their industry for support, advice, and resources
  6. Once the campaign is strong enough to withstand management retaliation, they “go public,” revealing themselves to management and any remaining uncontacted workers
  7. If all goes well, the union is certified in the company through the process of an NLRB-sanctioned vote or voluntary recognition by the employer.
  8. The newly certified union begins to negotiate with the employer for a contract that secures better wages, protections for workers, and any other relevant demands

Throughout the entire process the campaign will also engage in “direct action,” worker-executed initiatives designed to directly secure benefits or improved working conditions outside of formal bargaining. This could manifest as a work stoppage, a march on the boss, a boycott, etc.

One-on-one meetings between organizers and their coworkers are the bread-and-butter of any campaign; unionizing is about making strong personal connections and channeling anger into solidarity! Labor Notes’ Secrets of a Successful Organizer covers techniques for making these 1ons as effective as possible | Source

This is a brutal oversimplification — some campaigns take these steps in different order, and some will omit or substitute certain steps altogether. A few notable exceptions are below:

  • The above is the “Industrial Model,” where a union covers a whole workplace. The “Craft Model” is often used in industries where workers bounce between many short-term employers each year (e.g. actors). Workers join the union as individuals, and joining gives them access to certain jobs that benefit from standards negotiated between the union and the employer.
  • The described industrial model is based on the process in the US and Canada. A similar model is used in many other countries, but union membership in places like Australia and Europe is also individual-based rather than workplace-based.
  • “Solidarity Unions” employ a model that focuses extensively on direct action, usually eschewing the pursuit of a contract altogether.

There’s not enough room in this article to do justice to the whole process, but the point I want to get across is this: unionization is something that comes directly from the workers at a given company. When we talk about trying to “unionize the games industry,” what we really mean is giving our fellow workers the tools to unionize ourselves. Union staff and volunteer organizers can advise, provide resources, and help workers start new campaigns or join existing ones, but the company is ultimately the battleground and the employees are the soldiers. No outside force can unionize our workplaces for us, we need to do it ourselves.

The Volunteer Wing of the Labor Movement in Games

Let’s talk again about the organizations in the games industry’s labor movement. First, we have the campaigns themselves — groups of workers at individual companies pursuing unionization. Next, we have existing union infrastructure — the CWA, IATSE, etc. — which employs staff organizers that partner with campaigns to ensure success, as well as staff administrators to manage existing contracts, and benefits.

And then we have orgs like Game Workers Unite (GWU), Game Workers of Southern California (GWSC, yours truly!), and Tech Workers Coalition (TWC), groups of volunteer organizers who spend their free time contributing to the movement. There’s no one way this manifests — some volunteer groups act much like union infrastructure and support individual campaigns. Some run public training sessions to teach workers about unionizing and labor law. Some run outreach programs to advance unionism and dispel employer propaganda. And some exist as community spaces to bring together existing organizers as well as incubate new ones. Most of these volunteer groups’ work fits into multiple of these categories, and many cover all of them.

To give you our local example, in GWSC’s 2.5 years we’ve canvassed at conferences, developed a local organizer training and supported an equivalent one in GWU International, provided training and logistical support for the Riot Walkout (if anyone ever needs a megaphone on short notice, give us a ring!), cultivated a discord server for SoCal game workers to connect, advised individual workers trying to make change at their companies, and held community events like socials and potlucks.

Riot games workers attending the Riot Walkout of May 2019, in protest of sexual harassment cases at the company being stuck in justice-obstructing forced arbitration | Image: Nathan Grayson, Kotaku

These programs are distinctly separate from the work of running a campaign, but they do help create new campaigns and support existing ones. None of us are under the impression that a few potlucks are going to take down Bezos, Kotick, Zuckerberg, and the rest of the ghouls, but we’ve had long-term workplace campaigns born at potlucks. I will not for a moment say that this community work is more important than running a campaign. Some of us do both, but if we must choose between unionizing our workplace or working on a GWSC initiative, the former must always be the priority — that’s where the battle is! Nevertheless, volunteer groups like ours fill an important niche in the ecosystem by creating and supporting campaigns and providing a social infrastructure between workers in different shops.

What it Means to be a Volunteer Organizer

Something I must emphasize is the word “Volunteer” in “Volunteer Wing.” The members of these orgs are individual workers in the industry and their allies who donate their precious free time to the movement without, with few exceptions, being on anyone’s payroll. It may seem oxymoronic to advance the labor movement with unpaid labor, but this is true of almost every activist group out there. This is what makes grassroots volunteer and protest groups distinct from nonprofits with funding and paid staffers. In fact, most activist groups collect monthly dues (on income-based sliding scales) from members to fund expenses like meeting space rentals, pamphlet printing, fees to third parties like lawyers, mutual aid, and so forth. Additionally, almost all of us work full-time jobs or are full-time students on top of our activism, and some of us run campaigns at our workplaces.

This is a thorny reality that every activist org must manage differently. How can we accomplish our necessary work without burning ourselves and our fellow activists out? This deserves its own article, but there are some basic principles to follow. First, we need to recognize that while a few volunteers might have 10–20 hours a week to contribute, the vast majority have 5 at best and more likely 1 or 2. Our work needs to be scoped and distributed appropriately, and there must be a constant conversation about bandwidth and boundaries. When people need to step away — for a week, for a month, for good — that simply must be accommodated.

Given these limitations, it may sound like the bosses don’t have much to be afraid of. But to call back to earlier, this isn’t about our group of volunteers “unionizing the industry” — this is about all of us coming together as workers, sharing our knowledge and resources, and making the decision to fight for each other. No external group can organize your workplace for you, but we can help you get started and support you along the way. That’s what we’ve been doing for the past 3 years, and that’s what we continue to do today.

At the beginning of our trainings I like to ask students a silly question — can Bobby Kotick, CEO of Activision-Blizzard, 3D model a rock? Can he texture a rock, UV unwrap a rock, program rock physics, identify and reproduce rock-related bugs, localize a rock’s flavor text to different languages and cultures, or run customer support for the rock? No, no, absolutely not, no, not a chance, no, and no. Bobby needs us, the workers, to make every little piece of the products he sells — from headline game features to the rocks under the player’s feet. The day we understand our power to withhold that labor if we are to be cheated and mistreated — and that we have so much more in common with each other than the people who profit off of us — is the day we win.

Unions, Anti-racism, and Anti-Oppression

In the year 2020 we can’t, and shouldn’t, talk about unions without talking about how their relationship with racism and anti-racism. GWSC firmly believes that unionism is the most powerful tool to raise the standard of living for all workers, but we cannot pretend that unions are immune to participating in systems of oppression. There are unions which mishandle the concerns of their workers and settle for crumbs. There are unions which fail to incorporate the voices of BIPOC members, or even accept policies that render them harm. And of course there are police unions, a category of union that shouldn’t exist representing a category of worker that shouldn’t exist.

As organizers we must be very honest about the fact that we are building power structures. Specifically, unions are democratic power structures which exist to oppose the implicit power structure in the workplace — a dictatorship. This is the dictatorship of one’s CEO and shareholders, a group which answers to nobody and has final say over every decision that affects their workers’ livelihoods. It is intuitively obvious that a democracy is preferable to a dictatorship; issues which affect the lives of 10,000 workers should be chosen with 10,000 voices, not a handful of suits at the top. But in 2020 it will also come as no surprise that democracies are perfectly capable of committing harm, and today’s union landscape has plenty of very troubled democracies. Very often this harm manifests through elected union leaders betraying the will of their members, but harm can also be born out of oppressive beliefs held by the members themselves.

As organizers we must be deliberate about the type of democracies we are building, and never become complacent once they are established. Organizing campaigns must not only include but center the voices and concerns of BIPOC members. It’s not enough simply to say that racialized pay disparities are lower in unionized workplaces than non-union. This is true, but we need to have racial justice be our explicit focus and not just a side effect. On the other end, it’s up to workers in existing unions to form rank-and-file caucuses to advance progressive agendas. The past few years have seen an explosion in “wildcat strikes” unsanctioned by conservative union leadership, and workers in SEIU and other unions have formed “Drop the Cops” caucuses to demand the expelling of law enforcement from all unions. Unionism is a tremendous tool to advance common good, but it only works If we are active participants in building fully anti-racist democracies.

No Cop Unions and SEIU Drop the Cops are rank-and-file lead groups of union members and their allies working to eject law enforcement personnel and unions from groups like the AFL-CIO

On the local scale, let’s talk about GWSC’s relationship with anti-racism. The protest movements that exploded this June were galvanizing for us as well as the rest of the world, and a lot of good came from this energy. We dissolved our “chapter coordinator” leadership position into a four-person steering committee to represent a broader range of perspectives. Plans were resurrected to form a people of color committee. Our GWSC Discord server became a vessel through which to share protest information and form groups to attend them, and many of us began to collaborate on pushing anti-racism initiatives within our workforces. We’re trying hard to put our money where our mouth is, but I also cannot in good faith tell you that we’re all the way there. We have some incredible workers of color contributing to our work, but our membership and leadership still remain proportionally too white. We’ve internally voted in favor of the “Drop the Cops” movement but need to do better and support it materially. And while our GWSC Discord server is a welcoming place where our few conflicts have been resolveable with mediation, we need to build formalized moderation infrastructure to ensure that things stay safe as we grow. In the coming months and years we hope to hedge these shortcomings and continue to hold ourselves accountable, because none of us are free until all of us are free.

GWSC, the CWA, and the Future of GWU

I started this article with the history of the labor movement in games’s volunteer wing, and I’ll now account for its current state. All of this varies depending on where you live, and my perspective is clouded with a North American focus, but a few common trends run throughout.

Over the past year, an evolution has taken place across the landscape of GWU chapters. Our loose organization as a Discord server full of volunteers — and people just hanging out — was enough to jumpstart the movement in 2018, but in the time since that structurelessness proved itself unsustainable. The lack of bylaws and elected titles led to problems with accountability, and the lack of substantial moderating resources (3–5 moderators for thousands of members) made the International Discord server an often difficult place to be in. Simultaneously, the entry of established unions into the games industry was an unambiguous triumph, but it also forced us to reckon with where we fit into the new landscape.

To address these challenges, a number of evolutions have occurred:

  • Starting in late 2019, a group of chapters and International organizers collaborated to create a charter for a new GWU International, which establishes formalized positions, accountability procedures, and centralized inter-chapter cooperation. As part of this the GWU International Discord server from 2018 was phased out, in favor of more focused internal communication channels for organizing.
  • Other chapters, such as GWU Los Angeles, Orange County, and Seattle, instead chose to spin off during this period and become independent of the international group.
  • Many chapters from both of the above categories have entered into official partnerships, or even mergers, with established unions. 2 years ago GWU United Kingdom voted to become a branch of the Independent Game Workers of Great Britain (IWGB), and more recently GWU Seattle became a branch of the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW). Other chapters, ourselves included, have remained independent but entered into primary-partnership relationships with specific unions — GWSC and GWU Toronto have both signed “Solidarity Agreements” with the Communication Workers of America (CWA). Others still have developed regular working relationships with union representatives without choosing a primary partner.

GWU LA and GWU Orange County, now a single organization called Game Workers of Southern California, decided to become independent of GWU International for a few reasons. First, our day-to-day operations have always been relatively independent, and when the slightly more centralized charter came out we decided we wanted to keep our focus on local organizing. And as a function of that, we felt it would be easier for the public to get to know our work and our voice as distinct from the rest of GWU’s if we developed our own distinct branding. Despite this we hope to continue collaborating with GWU chapters and remain close allies with our fellow workers around the world. Capital is internationally coordinated, and so must labor be!

So, with that extremely long preamble, let me introduce Game Workers of Southern California. We are a volunteer-based group of game workers and their allies who work in Los Angeles, Orange County, and the greater Southern California area. We are a membership-based organization — being a member is free, you just need to fill out this form so we can verify that you’re not a boss (or cop, gamergater, fascist, etc.). We are proud signatories of a solidarity agreement with the Communication Workers of America’s Campaign to Organize Digital Employees (CODE-CWA) program. We remain independent and fully support campaigns that are affiliated with other unions or with no external union, but we’ve chosen CODE-CWA as our closest collaborator because we’ve seen them foster their campaigns with unparalleled energy, radicalism, and care. We are also close allies of SAG-AFTRA, the union that represents voice, mocap, and percap actors in the games industry.

The Communication Workers of America’s “CODE” campaign is an initiative to organize the games and tech industries

We coordinate most of our activities through a GWSC Discord server, to which all members have access. Our initiatives have varies across the years, but these are our main tactics:

  • Community-building: Creating relationships and solidarity between rank-and-file game workers and their allies across SoCal, and creating a safe space for workers to learn about unionization. In the past we’ve run potlucks, public socials with open-mic venting, and online game nights.
  • Education: Teaching game workers about the principles and values of unionization, and the practical skills of how to accomplish it. For us this manifests as running trainings, sharing resources with each other, and acting as emissaries of the labor movement in our workplaces and personal lives.
  • Coalition-building: Building relationships and solidarity between other labor and labor-supportive organizations to create a unified front. Some examples include our joint events with SAG-AFTRA and the National Lawyers Guild, our close relationship with the CWA and other unions, etc.
  • Direct Worker Support: Providing direct assistance to individuals and groups of game workers in our region. Part of our membership induction process involves a short call with each worker — these serve to verify identities, but more importantly they help us create personal connections, provide a listening ear, and direct workers to resources like CWA organizers. In the past we’ve also assisted workers in direct actions, such as the Riot Walkout.

Our Call to Action

I’ve talked a lot about the different volunteer-based organizations in games and labor, but it’s important to remember that these orgs are not monolithic entities. We are nothing more than the sum of our parts, and our “parts” are rank-and-file game workers just like you. Our siblings, brothers and sisters at the CWA have a saying that I love dearly — “a union is not a vending machine into which dues are fed and services are received.” A union is a democratic power structure, a manifestation of the collective will of dozens, hundreds, or thousands of workers, which leverages our power over production to win us our fair share of the value we create. For any of that to work it requires the active participation of all workers involved — some of us have more time and bandwidth to devote than others, but we all have a place in the struggle and we can’t win unless we work together.

It is a popular truism that every organizing conversation must end with an ask, and I will close with one for you now. Get involved. Join the movement, get in touch with an organizer, and talk to your coworkers. I can’t tell you we always win, because we don’t. But I will promise you now that if you get even one coworker a raise, it will have been worth it. If you change even one exploitative policy, if you get even one sexual harasser fired, If you help even one desperate person feel heard and supported, it will have been worth it. Organizing is scary, exhausting, and often tedious. I’ve had so many moments over the years when I wanted to give up. But what keeps me holding on is remembering the moment when a fellow worker told me, “this is the first time I’ve had hope.” Be that person. Bring the hope. Join us, join the movement, build the future you want to see. A better world is possible, but it takes all of us to make it happen.

Actionables:

  • Have questions? Email us at gwofsocal@gmail.com
  • Want to organize your workplace? If you’re in North America, we recommend you contact a CODE-CWA organizer through this form — from there you’ll get a prompt response from a CWA organizer who will set up a call to learn about your situation. We promise, you’ll be in the best of hands. Outside of North America, we recommend you get in touch with your local Game Workers Unite chapter — they should be able to point you in the right direction!
  • Want to learn about unionization? We recommend taking Modules I and II of CODE-CWA’s online organizer trainings. These have run every weekend for the last few months, and will resume in 2021. To stay in the know, you can sign up for their newsletter. The Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) also has a good course, and depending on where you are you can also ask your local Game Workers Unite chapter if they offer trainings.
  • Want to contribute to a volunteer organization? If you’re SoCal-based, hit us up!, otherwise you can see if there’s a GWU chapter near you. If you work in tech rather than games, the Tech Worker’s Coalition is a great volunteer-based group in our sister industry.
  • You might not feel like you have anything to contribute, but we promise you that’s not true. We’re all learning as we go, and we need all the hands we can get.

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Robin LoBuglio
Game Workers of Southern California

Robin LoBuglio is an LA based game worker, union member, and labor organizer with Game Workers of SoCal and the Tender Claws Human Union. She/her