Quality Assurance (QA) workers at the Words Studios site in Edmonton, Canada, which supports BioWare projects such as Mass Effect: Legendary EditionThey voted unanimously in favor of a union, they announced Monday.
The Alberta Labor Council counted the votes on Monday and found that all 16 qualified QA workers voted yes.
A representative of the New Words workers union said that bargaining would begin this week. A Words Studios representative pointed out to Polygon a statement on their website:
Keywords Studios is accepting a vote of 16 Edmonton employees who have chosen to join a syndicate. We value our employees and will continue to continually strive to be a good employer. As an organisation, we want to ensure an interactive experience for all of our employees, and we take any concerns our employees have very seriously. We will continue to have an ongoing dialogue with everyone on the Edmonton team, as we move forward together, always learning and improving.
“We are thrilled,” James, a staffer at Keyword Studios QA and a member of the organizing committee, told Polygon on Monday. “We are very pleased. It will help us move forward in compromising that the entire team is fully united in this effort.”
Keywords Studio QA workers started talking about unions in March after the studio implemented a back-to-office order that meant hundreds of dollars in additional expenses for mobile workers. Workers have already been frustrated by low wages, find it difficult to absorb high commuting costs, and also find the flexibility of working from home to be meaningful. Studios QA workers said they are not receiving paid time off, which also makes returning to the office more difficult. Showing any symptoms of COVID-19 could mean having to take a personal day off, rather than just being able to work from home.
“We all got together and started talking about what it would look like in terms of costs to each of us individually,” James said. “We had a choice. We can either try to quit smoking and find another job, but we love what we’re doing. We don’t want to leave. So we decided to try forming a union to see if we could lead some positive change in our workplace.”
Keywords Quality Assurance studio workers are regulated by the Canadian Federation of United Food and Commercial Workers, local number 401. The group submitted papers to the Alberta Labor Relations Board in April.
Founded in 1998, Words Studios is headquartered in Ireland and has over 20 offices around the world. Keywords itself does not publish or develop its own games, but instead provides art, sound, quality assurance, and development support for other studios.
Words Studios BioWare, owned by Electronic Arts since 2007, lists EA, Square Enix, and Blizzard Entertainment among the many AAA studios and the publishers they support. The Edmonton team, specifically, worked on BioWare games like Mass Effect: Legendary Edition and Star Wars The Old Republic expansion. The team is currently working on the upcoming Dragon Age.
The Keyword Studios Syndicate vote comes two weeks after Raven Software’s Activision Blizzard QA workers formed a union by 19-3 votes.
Labor organizing and union formation in the video game industry is more common outside North America; Historically, the technology industry in North America has been considered anti-Union. Video game workers, in particular, reported working long hours—sometimes up to 100 per week under difficult conditions—and low wages. QA staffers, in particular, told Polygon in 2021 that they often feel they can be dumped, with minimum wages and contractual duty cycles.
Workers push to change that environment, however, with QA workers leading the initiative for fairer working conditions.
James, a quality assurance worker at Words Studios, said the keyword syndicate has been in touch with colleagues at Raven Software, who have supported their efforts by sharing experiences and anti-union tactics to look for. They also received support from Game Workers Unite Montréal, an organization that advocates for workers and union rights in the video game industry.
“We have a better chance of getting better working conditions together,” James said.
Modernization: This story has been updated to include a statement from Words Studios.