Edmonton video game workers vote to unionize, an industry first for Canada

Sixteen Edmonton workers on a quality assurance team voted unanimously to unionize through the United Food and Commercial Workers Local 401, the union said in a news release Monday.

Ireland-based Keywords Studios has accepted vote result

The workers are contracted out to Edmonton-based BioWare, famous for the Mass Effect and Dragon Age series. (Bioware)

In an industry first for Canada, 16 video game development workers in Edmonton have voted to unionize.

Unionization efforts for the video game development industry have been few and far between despite decades of stories of exploitative working conditions. While more common outside the United States and Canada, there are only two unions in North America in video game development.

Now added to that count is a quality assurance team from Keywords Studios, based in Ireland.

The 16 Edmonton workers voted unanimously to unionize through the United Food and Commercial Workers Local 401, the union said in a news release Monday.

"Workplace frustrations are widespread throughout this industry, and it has become clear that workers need to unionize to address those issues," UFCW Local 401 president Thomas Hesse said in the release.

"We are proud to participate in those trailblazing efforts in North America."

Keywords Studios operates in 23 countries and has more than 9,000 employees.

The Edmonton team is contracted to game developer BioWare, famous for the Mass Effect and Dragon Age series.

A statement posted to the Keywords Studios website said the company accepts the vote results.

"We value our people and will continue to constantly strive to be a good employer," it reads. "As an organization we want to ensure an engaging experience for all of our employees, and we take any concerns that our staff have seriously."

Contract negotiations

Felix Martinez, a national representative with UFCW, said the next step will be creating proposals and starting negotiations for the workers' first contract.

"The fact that it's 100 per cent, it's always very exciting and it's also very clear — it gives us a lot of leverage for bargaining," he said.

"The employer knows that the workers are 100 per cent into it so it opens up a lot of possibilities for bargaining."

Employees previously told CBC News the primary reasons for the unionization effort was a substantial wage gap between contracted workers and those employed directly by BioWare doing similar jobs and a mandated back-to-work order that has since been rescinded.

"That kind of resolved itself before the vote," Martinez said. "But definitely putting things in writing as well as codifying existing things that people like is going to be part of [negotiations]."

The Alberta Labour Relations Board is expected to issue a certificate 24 hours after the result of the vote has been communicated to the parties involved.

The first game developers' union in North America was formed just last year at Vodeo Games, a small independent studio whose employees work remotely in both Canada and the United States.

A second union was formed this year for the quality assurance department of Wisconsin-based Raven Software, which has worked on the Call of Duty franchise.


Stephen Cook


Stephen Cook is a reporter with CBC Edmonton. He has covered stories on a wide range of topics with a focus on policy, politics, post-secondary education and labour. You can reach him via email at stephen.cook@cbc.ca.


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