As It Happens·Q&A

Canada's video games industry is getting its 1st union. Organizers hope it's not the last

James Russwurm hopes his team will be one of many to unionize in the video games industry.

Quality assurance team from Keywords Studios — which contracts with industry giant BioWare — votes to unionize

A man with a reddish-brown beard and glasses, wearing a hoodie and a T-shirt, sits at a desk holding a video game controller.
James Russwurm is a quality assurance tester for Keywords Studios, working on games for BioWare in Edmonton. He and his colleagues have successfully organized the first union in Canada's video games industry. (Submitted by James Russwurm)

James Russwurm hopes his team will be one of many to unionize in the video games industry.

Russwurm works in quality assessment for the Ireland-based company Keywords Studios. His team works in Edmonton, doing contract work for video games giant BioWare, makers of the blockbuster franchises Mass Effect and Dragon Age.

He and his 15 colleagues in Edmonton have voted unanimously to unionize under the United Food and Commercial Workers Local 401. Their union will be the first for the games industry in Canada, and only the third in North America.

In a statement on its website, Keywords Studios said it accepts the results of the vote and "will continue to constantly strive to be a good employer."

Russwurm spoke to As It Happens guest host Tom Harrington about the victory. Here is part of their conversation.

Why did you and your fellow workers decide it was time for a union at Keywords Studios?

Most of our starter workers, so our entry-level people, they start at Alberta minimum wage, which is about $15 an hour. 

With the rising costs of rent and food and gas and everything, we had a lot of members who were pushed up against the wall say: "I can't really afford to work here anymore or if I want to."

Plus, we were going to be having to go back into the office five days a week. So with the cost of parking downtown and the gas prices and everything, it was just going to become unlivable for a lot of our members. 

We didn't want to leave our positions, because working in the video games industry is very much a passion-driven industry, kind of more akin to television or even radio, where it can be quite difficult to sort of break into that sector. And being forced out of it just because we weren't being paid enough, we felt like if we organized, we could maybe try to come to a bit more of an equitable situation with our employer.

We're not against working overtime or putting in the extra hours. We just want to be making sure that we're being fairly compensated and not taken advantage of.- James Russwurm, video game quality assessment worker

Give me an idea then what kind of hours you deal with on deadline... What kind of hours are you expected to work and what are the pressures like under those conditions?

Crunch culture is a real thing in the video games industry. For those who aren't familiar, it's the idea that when you're sort of reaching those deadlines, or you're reaching the end of the project, that there is a day that this game needs to go out onto the market. And it's been set up with advertisers and retailers, and work needs to get done.

So you end up with what's called crunch, where you're really forced into unrelenting overtime pretty well right up to the minute that that game goes out the door — and sometimes for weeks afterwards, as well, as you're continuing to support it after it's gone out.

We're not against working overtime or putting in the extra hours. We just want to be making sure that we're being fairly compensated and not taken advantage of.

And were you being fairly compensated up until you became a union?

My personal view is that we're not being fairly compensated for our roles.

Say you worked at another studio and you weren't a contractor like we are. You'd probably be working in a similar capacity, but you're starting closer to $26 an hour. So the industry average, we're getting paid significantly under what that is, even locally.

Art from Mass Effect: Andromeda, a game from BioWare. (Supplied)

When you started pushing for the union, how did your fellow employees react initially?

We actually found that most of the team was very receptive towards the idea.

The conversation about unionization has been going on for a little bit now in the games industry. And with Raven Studios down in the United States also taking off with their unionization effort, it was more in the team's minds than I actually initially thought it would be. And we were able to secure a lot of support really quickly just by having the conversation in the first place.

You were part of the instigating forces behind creating this union. What do you think your future is? Do you think the company will take action against you?

Personally, I don't know. I felt like it's the least I could do to sort of get the ball rolling. I see my fellow workers, who a lot of them are some of the brightest individuals I've ever had the pleasure of working alongside. And I really couldn't just keep going to work and seeing them get really taken advantage of anymore.

So for me, it was more [that] I want to see them get an equitable and fair treatment from the company … than I am necessarily concerned with, like, my long-term prospects within the industry. 

And I hope that ... this may show other other studios, too, that they can get out there and unionize as well.

This is a victory for you, but it's 16 employees. There's tens of thousands in the video game industry who work there. What difference can something like this make in the industry?

We really hope that we can lead by example and show that there's really nothing to be afraid of when it comes to unionizing.

We were able to come through on the other side with a good vote that we think we're going to be able to get a good contract.

We really just want to continue to support anybody who wants to unionize as well in any capacity we can. 

Written by Sheena Goodyear. Interview produced by Chris Harbord. Q&A has been edited for length and clarity.

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