Lessons from the experiences of Jessica Gonzalez in organizing at Activision-Blizzard
I recently had the chance to interview Jessica Gonzalez, better known as “TechJess” but formerly as “BlizzJess” on Twitter, a publicly prominent organizer at Activision-Blizzard-King (ABK) during the massive wave of walkouts in 2021-2022. Jessica is an Italian-American QA (Quality Assurance) worker in the video game industry, despite sometimes facing confusion on that ethnicity due to her married name. Her story provides a unique insight into a form of direct action that often isn’t direct action at all; one that is completely legal but more dangerous than many illegal forms of strike or other workplace action, and not least because it often doesn’t work. To see what I mean, I’ll need to tell you some of that story.
Like many of her coworkers, Jess jumped into workplace organizing in response to the company’s horrific sweep-under-the-rug response to a California Department of Fair Employment and Housing lawsuit which came to public attention in 2021. That lawsuit, which alleged and provided a great deal of substantiating evidence of an extensive management and C-suite culture and practice of sexual and racial discrimination and harrassment, set sparks to the dry tinder of grievances felt deeply by the majority of workers at the game publisher and subsidiary studios. When then-Executive VP for Corporate Affairs Frances Townsend signed her name to a letter by then-CEO Bobby Kotick which alleged without substantial evidence that the lawsuit “did not accurately portray the current corporate culture,” and outright lied about whether DFEH had attempted good faith mediation before filing suit, it poured gasoline on that fire. At a Zoom meeting called by the Women’s Network group within the company (of which Townsend had been made nominal head), Townsend refused to answer impassioned questions from women, including Jessica, about the abuses against them, and left the meeting early when the workers wouldn’t put up with her tone-policing and stonewalling. Women in the company didn’t stop joining the call, and male colleagues dropped out to let more women speak, sharing stories with each other of personal experiences of abuse. In just a few days, the agitation exploded into a mass walk-out demanding that Townsend and Kotick resign. At each major office, hundreds of workers showed up to the pickets, and over 2600 of them signed an open response letter petitioning for their demands for immediate resignation by the offending executives.
Those specific demands went un-met, but the fire wouldn’t die there. Employees who had already been trying to organize before this (some spurred by the interview calls they received from DFEH as the agency built up to filing suit) invited other agitated employees, including Jessica, into Slack and Discord channels dedicated to the organizing and the grievances. There was disagreement over how to approach action on the grievances, and Jess took a track which may make experienced IWW organizers cringe (as it did some of the others she was organizing with at the company): she aggressively publicized the issues and sought public engagement. Her reasons for doing so are familiar: she already felt burned. Not only had she personally suffered from this discrimination and harrassment, from microaggressions and gendered assumptions to overt sexual overtures and inappropriate physical “humor,” she knew coworkers who’s had it worse and even attempted suicide. The unusual thing, though, is that unlike most publicity campaigns associated with organizing campaigns, in addition to the expected drawing retaliation against her personally from corporate superiors, she actually met with success in building participation in organizing and direct actions and achieving worker demands.
One such direct action, which could work well in any workplace where pay transparency is a concern, was to compile an anonymized spreadsheet of role title vs. pay from the workers who had walked out. We can’t show that exact spreadsheet which is now an organizing document internal to CWA organizing ongoing at the company, but I did obtain a similar spreadsheet collected and organized by Evva Karr, who was active with Game Workers Unite at the time, and which collected similar information from about 800 workers in various disciplines of game development, from many different employers. At large companies where pay transparency is often an issue, this kind of spreadsheet could allow workers to find out for themselves how equitable the pay scale is, and use that in forming demands based on pay. This forms both an important part of the basis of all organizing, understanding the workplace, and a tool for agitation and for planning the next direct action to escalate with. If you want to do a spreadsheet like this in your workplace, a word of caution: some of the information collected from the game devs from different companies in the global spreadsheet could be much more personally identifying when taken in the context of a single company, so if you do collect that information because it’s relevant to grievances (such as whether non-white workers are paid less, a common problem), be especially careful with who has access to your information. Whereas this sheet was deemed acceptable to share publicly and those who submitted to it were warned that would be the case, your sheet for your own workplace organizing should be kept accessible only to trusted members of your shop committee. If you’re in the IWW, everyone on the committee should be before they are trusted to access this information.
If you ask any Organizer Training 101 facilitator in IWW, and most organizers experienced in our methods, whether you should publicly announce and speak about your organizing campaign, you’ll get a resounding “NO!” in answer. It’s not a power move! It tips off your boss and invites retaliation, whether carrot or stick, to try and break up your organizing! I agree with these issues with going public, so it’s a surprise to me to say: Jessica did right in her situation and built worker power. How can that be? She did something we know doesn’t work from a century of accumulated practice, but it worked. Why? What’s the difference from all those times it didn’t work, which lead us to correctly advise against this practice in the general case?
As we discussed the question, Jessica and I were able to identify 5 key factors at work here:
- Jess was ready to take the heat.
Because she felt like the situation was already as horrible as it could get, Jessica was prepared to deal with retaliation and stick to her guns. She knew that if she didn’t fight to make things better, she wouldn’t be able to stay with the job anyway.
- The workers at ABK were distributed all over the world.
There were no direct face to face, or even virtual workplace links between many of the employees of the multinational corporation. Making a public splash brought attention from ABK workers literally across the globe, and drew action and involvement from them. By being a specific face for the organizing, Jessica was able to field questions and contacts from other workers, and build their connections with the organizing effort and the collective power of the workers.
- Blizzard runs World of Warcraft, a subscription service with revenue that can react very sensitively to issues of trust.
Publicly threatening the community trust in the company is a form of direct action with economic impact, here. Consider what is achieved by an informational picket with workers passing out pamphlets in front of a storefront; the same point on the scale from emotional to economic impact was achieved here. Call it putting the fear of boycott in the boss, and you won’t be far off.
- Esports players, live gameplay streamers, video content creators, and other paratext creating outside workers, although not working for ABK, have a major effect on ABK’s bottom line.
Part of achieving the 3rd key factor was in spreading the word through existing and newly-formed relationships with members of the secondary entertainment creation sphere surrounding the games the company publishes. Content creators of this type are often called “influencers,” and they serve a crucial role in marketing for video games. Arguably, they are workers in the same workplace, and failing to get them involved in the action would have been failing to organize in the wall-to-wall manner that characterizes IWW’s solidarity organizing.
- Previous experience showed only public news coverage would draw management responses.
There were some actions prior to the walkouts in response to the same issues within the company. Coordinated email zaps and reporting campaigns, which involved hundreds of employees and targeted low and mid level bosses. Those actions received silence and stonewalling. However, whenever a rumor broke in Kotaku or a prominent YouTuber made a critical video about ABK management actions which drew millions of views, there would be a response from the bosses within hours.
It all comes back to the base of the IWW organizing pyramid, the most important factor to organizing any workplace which underpins everything else: understanding the workplace. One of the largest AAA game publishers, heavily dependent on trust-sensitive revenue from a live subscription service flagship product, with workers distributed across the world and many independent workers who are nonetheless important to the business model, presented a different target profile than your average neighborhood hardware store or corporate administrative office. Still, what was actually won?
- Thousands of workers volunteered contact information & to sign union authorization cards, saying the first thing they’d seen of it was Jessica’s advocacy.
- The majority of QA workers across the company were given full time status and improved pay and benefits rapidly.
- Microsoft – amidst negotiations over acquiring ABK – agreed to and signed a neutrality agreement specifying they would remain neutral to and not interfere with any ongoing union organizing during and after any potential takeover.
- A generous strike fund was collected from donations coming from the fan community of the games as much as from any employees of the company, as well as from other game workers across the industry. When the strike fund was mentioned by PewDiePie, then the face of the largest YouTube channel by subscribership and views, it made an enormous difference to the amount of money coming in to support workers.
- Workers across the company and industry contributed to a compensation tracking spreadsheet which has thrown back the curtain on compensation in the different disciplines involved in game development, opening up a deeper conversation about what needs to change and strengthening solidarity with specific knowledge. Most contributors found out about this effort because of the publicity efforts before having any one on one communication.
- QA workers at Raven Software became the first NLRB recognized union at a video game company in the USA. In the course of that organizing, inspired by Jessica’s public reporting on it, the 10 workers at independent studio Vodeo Games petitioned for voluntary recognition, and had it granted.
All these wins were directly contributed to by the ongoing public information push Jessica was a known face of and active participant in. Which isn’t to diminish the retaliation she faced as a result. She shared multiple examples:
- She was personally harassed by managers and by the other kind of fan of the games (if you haven’t heard of gamergate, you are fortunate; if you want to ruin that blissful ignorance, I recommend starting with Innuendo Studios video “Endnote 5: A Case on Digital Radicalism” to learn about the topic).
- She and other QA workers were subjected to sudden and mysterious disciplinary-evaluation practices, essentially placed on productivity probation for no clear reason other than union organizing.
- Eventually she did burn out and leave the company, though by her report, this would have happened about the same time if she had only been putting up with the problems that prompted her to organize in the first place. Still, retaliation made sure she did leave, despite the wins gained.
- The offices in France were shut down entirely in response to organizing, the company choosing to soak the fines they were subsequently charged for doing so and the termination payments due the workers there under French law, rather than deal with aggressively striking French workers. This was almost certainly a response to the way public knowledge of the French workers’ actions was inspiring other workers to do the same, and so related to the ongoing public discussion Jessica helped keep going.
There isn’t a clear “do this every time” lesson in this for any given organizing campaign. I will continue to recommend to 999/1000 organizing campaigns that they don’t want to try for public pressure as an action tactic. If anything, the characteristics of this exception prove why it’s a general rule. That being said, it also shows that there is no one-size-fits-all solution to organizing and direct action. Workers and organizers in any given campaign should consider the characteristics of the specific workplace when deciding how to contact workers, how to organize actions, and what demands to fight for. The most important lesson reinforced by Jessica’s story, in my opinion, is the importance of shop floor leadership. She was inside the situation. She had no prior union organizing experience, but her intuitive and observational knowledge of the company gave her insight into what would work for her situation. That’s why we do best not to shoot down even the worst seeming ideas from internal organizers; instead, we should ask why and how they think those things will work. Inoculation about previous examples is important, but so is leaving the decision in the hands of the shop committee.
Jessica’s bottom line on the subject was: it was worth it to her and to her coworkers. Not only did they gain tangible wins, but through contacts in CWA they gained solidarity from workers in many different industries. The feeling of that solidarity when picketing during an ABK walkout or going to another CWA picket, such as one for sex workers at a strip club in LA which organized earlier this year, or when meeting members of other unions like the Teamsters (and Wobblies like myself), gave her hope and support which she said carried her through and continues to lift her up. Who am I to argue with the worker who went through it on the front lines?