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Why "Just Unionize" Doesn't Work

kuhnertdm profile image Derek Kuhnert ・4 min read

On this blog I've tried to keep the content of my posts in the context of infosec and the like, but this post will be diverging a bit, simply due to the importance of the subject matter. Recently, video game studio Rockstar Games has come under some fire regarding a feature with Vulture looking into the making of their upcoming game Red Dead Redemption 2. The feature was dragged across the internet because of Rockstar co-founder Dan Houser's claims that the team worked multiple 100-hour weeks in the development process. In addition, Houser implied that the massive amount of overwork placed on the developers was something to be proud of, attributing it to the team's work ethic.

The culture of overwork in game development (and software development in general) has not gone unnoticed by developers, managers, and outsiders alike, regardless of attempts to glamorize it as "crunch time". There is a massive amount of work that goes into any AAA video game, without even considering the ridiculous amount of content in Red Dead Redemption 2. However, instead of expanding the development team or lengthening the project (both of which are costly to the executives at the top of the studio), managers simply choose to demand more and more of entry-level developers in increasingly shortened timeframes, contributing to stress and burnout among those developers.

Among the responses of the internet to Houser's words was a strong call to game developers to unionize, an idea that certainly intuitively makes sense and has worked for related professions in the past. However, there are some major problems with the solution of simply unionizing the game developer workforce, that come from the economics of the game development field today.

Supply and Demand

The central issue to the call to unionize is the massive number of entry-level softwaren developers seeking jobs in game development. There's already a very high supply of workers for software engineering, with how much the field has gained a reputation for potential rewards. And it makes sense that, even then, game development would have a disproportionately high supply compared to software development as a whole, as the content being developed is more interesting to potential developers than the typical software project. In short, people want to become game developers, because they like video games. And that's nothing against them, as we all have passions. The issue, though, is that many would be willing to put up with bad working conditions just to be able to work on video games.

Companies like Rockstar have thousands of applicants fresh out of college, ready for jobs in game development, and they don't care if they're put in bad working conditions. The managers know this too; this is what enables them to overwork their employees. If the developers currently working at Rockstar decided to unionize, then Rockstar could simply get new employees who decided to not do so. Yes, it can technically be against the law depending on the location, but there are very easy ways around that for a hiring manager (e.g. "We just don't think you're a good fit").

But won't the end product be worse?

The common sentiment in response to this issue is that the game studios would not lay the developers off, because they know that the result of that would be having worse workers developing their games, and therefore, a worse product at the end of the day. This would make perfect sense if we were talking about the senior developers, designers, writers, and other high-level workers. However, those are not the people who are typically working 100-hour weeks at studios like Rockstar. The people we're talking about here are the developers responsible for one tiny, more-or-less independent part of the whole. They may be working on a particular menu animation, or arranging pre-made dialog trees in the engine, or other small things that don't require any significant level of skill past knowing how to code in a particular language. If these people unionized, then any given applicant with a four-year degree in computer science (of which there are MANY) could fill their spot with minimal training and overhead. There would be no change to the overwork culture at the studio, and the union workers would be out of jobs there.

So what is the solution?

The solution in these cases is typically government regulation. This is one of the few cases where it's generally understood in economics that the government needs to step in and fix things, because the free market will not do that by itself. Stronger regulations for overtime in software development can make the choice for managers switch from overworking employees, to simply hiring more. Of course, there are concerns of increased overhead from this, but as stated earlier, the particular pieces of work here are well isolated enough that there won't be much more overhead from having more hands to divide the sheer number of tasks.

I know that this is a somewhat more complex solution than the intuitive "Just Unionize", but this is the real way that things will be able to change in the industry. Instead of spending energy trying to get software developers to do something against their self-interest, try to push change in legislation that will benefit both those who would have unionized, and those who would have taken their jobs.

Posted on Jul 12 '18 by:

kuhnertdm profile

Derek Kuhnert

@kuhnertdm

Infosec consultant, speedrunner, music producer, cool dude

Discussion

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Certainly the mere existence of a union at places like Rockstar is not going to guarantee their workers aren't exploited, laid off, or both in any particular order, thanks to the simultaneous existence of the reserve army of labor. But how do you think workers got what guaranteed protections we have enshrined in law in the first place? Governments don't generally listen to individuals, so organizing is what makes workers a bloc that can demand attention and get our interests taken as seriously as corporations' interests. How else are you hoping to "push change in legislation" in any meaningful sense?

 

This was a super interesting read. Thanks for posting!

I'm inclined to echo what Dian has already said. The push towards legislation around working hours (or even penalty rates for hours worked above and beyond the norm) starts and ends with a collective of like-minded folks coming together to amplify their voices.

Unions don't exist just to lobby employers and fight for their members interests in a narrow sense. They also exist to lobby governments for benefits and protections for the greater working community (outside of their member-base).

There is absolutely no way that millions of independent voices will reach the kind of harmony required to make seismic shifts in workplace legislation. Consider any other person or organization seeking legislative change. Hell, a giant business like Coca-Cola doesn't lobby directly to the legislature for whatever it is they may want. They pool their resources with all of their competitors and collectively decide to push for mutually beneficial goals that raise the tide of all parties in their industry.

If a giant corporation needs a collective voice to get things done legislatively speaking, then you can be very sure individual software developers need to do the same.

In short, your suggestion to push for legislative relief is, in all practicality, the same as "Just Unionize".

 

As Dian said and Leighton said you basically described why they need a union, to lobby the companies to sit down and talk or be regulated by lobbying the government.

You can do both ✌🏾

One of the historical reasons why software devs fail to unionize is because they think they are above "petty ideas" like that or because of the high salaries but evidence has suggested multiple times why they absolutely need to:

  • unregulated overtime leading to burnout
  • sexual harassment and assault cases hindered by NDAs or arbitration clauses
  • lack of protections for service workers in tech
  • those understandable petitions against contracting to the military or using facial recognition in police body cameras

This and many other things are reasons to dismount from that high horse and consider unionizing. Tech workers in big companies have an insane amount of power, they just don't realize it or are too proud to be likened to every other worker out there.

You make the example of knowledge workers being replaced with cheaper fresh graduates but think about factory workers in the hey days of unions. Being replaceable at a whim is exactly the reason why they banded together.

So yeah, just unionize ✌🏾

 
  1. Unions are here exactly for this
  2. It is super-easy as a developer to find a job. According to code.org, there is half a million job openings in the US
  3. My take is rather that there is simply not enough people to move at the speed market expects and developers get a lot of perks exactly because of this (doing 1.5 jobs)

Solution: invest shitloads of money into education (like, get women to be developers) and wait 10 years

 

I think that the majority of us perceives our profession as one which is comparable to assembly line workers. Spec in, code out and a foreman who meticulously controls the progress of the assembly line, sorry I mean the JIRA board. So, judging by our collective behaviour, we are but lowly minions of higher brains that micromanage us. But I don't think we should stoop so low. The demand is on our side, and the nature of our work has much more in common with that of e.g. medical doctors or lawyers with respect to amount of knowledge that is requiered (not necessarily with the amount of certification...). Does a doctor or lawyer allow anybody outside of his profession to tell him or her how to do the job? We have the luxury of being able to opt-out and stop accepting the counterfeit money in form of pseudo-prestige ("Look at me, I work in the game industry. How cool am I?") and I think we should. The leverage that can be gained that way is much higher than what could be reasonably hoped from any law or union.

 

For us to demand a union when we're already very well-paid sounds like a recipe for some kind of proletarian backlash.

There are two problems with this projection:

  1. Workers organizing benefits other workers, no matter who's paid how much. Solidarity is more important than the pay difference -- which, between senior factory workers and senior software developers, is not especially huge outside tech meccas. In fact, being able to demand higher pay makes tech workers an asset: we can easily afford higher dues and help fund further organizing efforts. And of course, it's not like higher pay and even seniority mean you can't be exploited.
  2. How long do you think the gravy train is going to last? By the time the labor market is outright flooded with newly-minted CS grads everyone here will have the security of seniority, but this is not a stable situation in the long term. All these efforts to drive young people into STEM fields (and out of the humanities) will effectuate a rebalancing of tech workers' power against corporate power, and it won't come up in our favor. The glut of surplus labor in the games industry will become the norm, wages will drop, job security will be a thing of the past, and the few successful startup founders who make it big will continue to be held up as an example of why this is all still fine.

It's true that we are presently, to coin a phrase, labor aristocrats; however, that's arguably true of most workers in the West (migrant farm laborers, Appalachian coal miners, and so on excepted). We may be at the top of that particular heap at the moment. But don't think of it in terms of "our situations are so different we can't work together". Think of it as "everybody should be able to enjoy what we have"!

 

Perhaps it is just my outlook, but I feel like this problem is imminently solvable on an individual basis. I would love to develop a game, but I have never even sought employment in games (or finance, or Amazon for that matter) exactly because of how I would likely be treated in those industries. Maybe fresh grads don't know. But we are talking about at-will, gainful, office-based employment for in-demand skills. They can walk away when they figure it out, and still have it on their resume.

I did have an interview with a games media company once. I knew when I asked about work-life balance that I shouldn't work there, and I declined to continue the process. And if I hadn't, they were probably ready to drop me at that point too.

IMO it isn't necessary in any way to involve a slow, clumsy, expensive bureaucracy to fix this. A more appropriate use of the significant overhead of lawmaking would be in cases where life and limb were in immediate danger.

Like the field worker who was bitten by a snake. But rather than seeking medical attention, they stuffed the bite with whatever was nearby (grass, hay) and kept working. Because if they left, they knew they would get fired and probably could not find other work. Eventually, the arm had to be amputated at the elbow. This was an actual event from several years ago, as relayed through the Guatemalan doctor. By comparison, a person choosing to work 100 hrs in an office when they could easily walk away... does not warrant getting my pitchfork out.

Edit: To be clear, I am absolutely against such practices. As a consumer of Rockstar products in the past, this information will factor into my future purchases. But from a job perspective, employees already have all the power they need to solve the problem, if only they would use it.

 

There is a huge misunderstanding over this whole area of development. You do not need to do any overtime. You are perfectly within your rights to say "I'm sorry, but I have something on this evening / spend too much time commuting / do not want to do any overtime". No company can force you to work outside of your contracted hours. In fact, they have to get you to sign a waver to opt out of the working time directive if they regulary want you to work over 40 hours a week. Again, you can refuse and any repercussions that they try and throw your way are against the law. At least that is the case in the UK and EU anyway.

 

The UK and EU have far more protections for workers than most of the US does. Most states implement an "at-will employment" standard which allows employees to be dismissed without cause and without recourse unless they can prove it was being exploited to paper over illegal discrimination or retaliation. And of course in addition to needing time and a lawyer for that, you're out of work and looking for a new job. (The flip side for workers is that we don't have to give notice if we don't feel like it, which is basically peanuts by comparison).

 

I know this is becoming a buzzword, but what really needs to change is the culture in the industry. Here (Brazil) we have specific laws and agencies in regards to working, and the supervision coming from those agencies really scares the companies. However, even with oversight, companies encourage overwork and then cheat on the working hour's sheet.

I do not think that either by unionizing or legislating we'll fix this, but by having a culture which refuses to agree on tight deadlines or any other thing that may lead to overwork, we'd have a chance. I know it might sound crazy and childish, but it does not matter doing anything at all when companies have someone else to replace an employee who does not want to bleed for the company. We should bleed for ourselves, for our families, for society's progress, for things that matter, and not only for our bosses and their bosses-bosses-bosses greed.

Many people come to this field with a really nice mindset which foresight the power that piece of software may have, either by improving healthcare or finances or whatever could improve the user's life. This is a nice mindset but only a few companies want to focus on the cause instead of profit. I know we should all earn money so we can live better, easier, lazier, ... er, but why doing something only for money other than surviving?

All this might sound bullshit, but the point is that many of the deadlines are driven by profit, while we could take a little bit longer to deliver something that would be better and have a bigger impact. Take Rockstar for example, why does it need to release Red Dead Redemption so soon that it matters more than having its employees having a nice work-life balance? I can not think of anything other than profit from players that want the game as soon as possible, and of course for staying relevant and not dying because of bills.

Despite this thinking, it does not go to practice, because after all, we are still just humans/citizens into a capitalistic society (not criticizing). By being humans in this scenario we need to focus first on survival and then, only then, on finding and building a better culture. Given that at the end of the day/month we still need the paycheck to live, we are left to the whims of our employers.

Probably I could have expressed myself more clearly, went less philosophical and less skeptic. Although, these thoughts are from some of the unanswered questions deep within me. PS.: sorry for my bad English grammar, I'm still learning.

 

There's already a very high supply of workers for software engineering, with how much the field has gained a reputation for potential rewards.

Is there though? Of course there are regional differences but i get many recruitment emails every damn day.

If I lost my job today I would be sad but I dont think for a minute I would have trouble finding very well paid work elsewhere.

In fact if the industry did more to improve conditions more people might actually stay in it, rather than burning out.

 

I think the picture is a bit distorted in games where there's a huge reserve of people with as-yet-uncrushed dreams chomping at the bit to land a job in ~game development~. Game companies have been exploiting developers and relying on the job's cachet to backfill entry-level positions for ages; the EA Spouse blog post that first blew the lid off the practice for a lot of people is almost 14 years old now.

 

Exactly this. There is actually a huge shortage of developers. It is also really easy to find another job in development. I get at least 20 calls a day offering a new permanent role or job so the idea that there is a high supply of workers is not true whatsover.

On a software engineer's salary, you can easily sock away over 50 grand a year. I just can't fathom what there is to complain about.

Wait, what?! I don't know where you live but 60-70k in Italy is a senior's salary in a lot of places and companies still balk at those numbers. Only a few companies pay a lot more and 100k salaries are rare (unless you're one of those amazing devs that has an upper level seniority, or you work at an american company with a branch here) So, nope, maybe where you live saving 50k per year is doable, here is the actual salary people would kill for, I guarantee you that :D

Why should I, the fiscally responsible one, be punished for the actions of those who aren't so good at spending their money? Why would I want to be lumped in with them? Free markets reward me for my good behavior. Government intervention does the opposite.

I think this fixation on free market solving all the problems doesn't actually take reality into consideration, because if free market would be able to solve all the issues (for a young and well off developer like you seem to hint at but also for a disabled person working in tech in another part of the country or in another continent) it would have. Don't you think?

We wouldn't be here talking about these issues we have living in a free market society otherwise.

And finally, what you're arguing against is also the definition of the societies we created. How is that argument different from "I don't want to pay for taxes if other people are not good at not getting sick" or "I don't want to pay for taxes to pave roads in a place I'm never going to drive to" ? :D

I'm not against free market, but the idea that it magically and eventually solves each and every problem by itself is a little bit of a fairy tale we like to believe (I did too). We wouldn't have governments and regulations if free market was a virtuous magical pill. Usually when you have a totally unregulated free market you tend to have an environment when people are abused. The moment you're not young and able bodied you wish your peers didn't look at you with IDGAF :)

Those recent grads, or at least many of them, will eventually become senior developers. Even absent the immediate economic argument, it's at minimum pragmatic to be looking out for the people who are in the process of becoming your peers.

The rest of what you're talking about makes a very pretty soliloquy on the virtues of being relatively young, healthy, adaptable, and free from material commitments and responsibilities some years into your career. It's a great position to be in! But here's the thing: insofar as that all describes you (for now), it makes you one of the lucky few. Should someone just starting out without an established work history to prove their bona fides, someone with expensive health issues, someone with children, someone relying on their employer for immigration sponsorship, someone paying down student loans or other debt, someone supporting other family members all forgo the collective advancement of their and their peers' interests against those of their employers' just because you've managed to line up a path to early financial independence for yourself?

 

Part of the problem (leaving aside the recent "revelations" about how voluntary working overtime at RockStar is) is how game development happens, how programmers are perceived, and how consumers demand for {Good,Fast,Cheap} always morphs to {Fast,Fast,Fast}.

Some places have "coders are like Kleenex, use one up, discard it, up pops another" attitudes. If you are any good you can do better, and find a place where you are valued, and can do good work that doesn't eat your life.

Fortnite has been in "Early Access" (Alpha) for over a YEAR now, and has made hundreds of millions of dollars and each release is so full of bugs that I don't even try to play for a day or so after release day so they can fix the show-stopper bugs. But consumers love it, and continue to pay to dress up their characters. If we consumers cared about quality, things would be different...

 

I think this topic is skewed if you come from the perspective of the gaming industry. Just about everyone I know who plays game, wants to have a job playing games.... Everyone who actually writes software for a living knows that is not what we do, but as long as the idea that working for a game company is somehow more exciting than writing line of business code... you'll have an unbalanced demand to work at those companies. I've known a few people in the game industry, and you only make good money if you are one of the starters, the rest don't make a lot of money or get treated very well because there are a million replacements ready to take your job.

If you want better pay/treatment, leave the game industry.

Just my two cents.