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Indie company Tender Claws is the next game studio to unionize

Workers at the studio, spanning many positions, asked for recognition Tuesday

flamingos and other items bundled together in Virtual Virtual Reality
Virtual Virtual Reality
Image: Tender Claws

Another video game studio is unionizing.

Workers at Los Angeles-based indie studio Tender Claws will unionize with the Communications Workers of America’s Campaign to Organize Digital Employees, workers told Polygon this week. The union will consist of at least 13 workers across several different departments, including both full-time and part-time producers, artists, and programmers. One hundred percent of the bargaining unit supports the effort, workers said.

Tender Claws’ union is called Tender Claws Human Union, a nod to the company’s own game, Virtual Virtual Reality, that features an in-game union for humans that work for AI. “[Virtual Virtual Reality] is very much about the gig economy and worker rights,” Tender Claws 3D artist Liz Walcher told Polygon. “It’s a little silly and tongue in cheek, but we felt that it was too good to pass up.”

Tender Claws workers approached management with a petition on Tuesday, asking for voluntary recognition. “While the signatures aren’t finalized, management has agreed to recognize TCHU-CWA pending a mutually acceptable agreement, and we look forward to working with them,” workers said. Tender Claws Human Union filed its petition with the National Labor Relations Board Friday.

Founded by Danny Cannizzaro and Samantha Gorman in 2014, Tender Claws has released a number of unique virtual- and alternate-reality games and experiences. That includes an AR virtual pet that reacts to player expressions in Tendar and surreal virtual reality comedies Virtual Virtual Reality and Virtual Virtual Reality 2. Another recent project from the studio is The Under Presents: Tempest, a live VR “immersive theater experience” based on the Shakespeare play. Tender Claws also published indie camping game Wide Ocean, Big Jacket in 2020.

Cannizzaro and Gorman provided the following statement to Polygon via a spokesperson:

Tender Claws is a small studio that has made an outsized impact on the industry — something that would not be possible without the creativity, talent, and commitment of our employees. We are extremely proud of all we’ve achieved together, and are grateful to work with like-minded people who are eager to explore art, technology, and human connection. We’ve worked hard over the years to make Tender Claws a supportive place to work where employees have the flexibility they need to pursue their own artistic and commercial endeavors, learn new skills, and repeatedly return to work together. The Tender Claws Human Union will no doubt have a positive impact both within and beyond our walls, and we are thrilled to recognize and work with the union, collaborating to make Tender Claws the best working environment it can be.

“I want to keep the things I love about Tender Claws, while also making sure that we can have a future here,” Tender Claws gameplay programmer Robin LoBuglio told Polygon. “Some of the issues we as a union are going to be advocating for are more opportunities for employees to participate in things like diversifying the hiring process and establishing pay equity among all employees. [We’re also] pursuing some concrete anti-crunch measures to make sure we all have a sustainable work life balance and opportunities for growing our careers and growing as developers.”

After decades of quiet (and not so quiet) organizing, the video game industry is in its early days of unionization. North America’s first video game union, founded by employees of Beast Breaker developer Vodeo Games, had its historic debut in 2021. New units created by QA workers at Activision Blizzard and Keywords Studios followed. Those studios have formally voted in favor of their unions, while others are earlier in the process, like former Vicarious Visions QA workers at Blizzard Albany, who asked Activision Blizzard to recognize its union last week. (Activision Blizzard did not respond to the petition, instead choosing to “provide a response to the petition to the [National Labor Relations Board].”)

“Waking up yesterday and seeing the Blizzard Albany news going public, that was very emboldening,” LoBuglio said. “A lot of people will assume that unions are only for huge, sprawling, corporate AAA companies, or they’ll assume it’s impossible to unionize big companies — only small ones are what you can do. The perfect synchronization between us and the workers at Blizzard Albany shows that unions are for everyone at every company.”

Walcher added: “There’s this notion that somebody needs to come along and unionize the industry, but that’s not how it happens. We unionize the industry. The unions are the workers. It’s been exciting to see this wave of change on the horizon, bit by bit, drop by drop.”

2022 has been marked by increased union activity across a variety of industries. Election petitions, which need to be filed before a union vote when a union is not voluntarily recognized, are up 58% in the first three fiscal quarters of 2022, totaling more than all election petitions filed in 2021, according to the NLRB. Similarly, the NLRB said unfair labor practice charges are up in 2022, too: an increase of 16% over 2021.

Several video game companies have had unfair labor practice charges filed against them in 2022, including Nintendo of America and Activision Blizzard. Unfair labor practice charges are filed when an employer (or union) is accused of violating the National Labor Relations Act, the 1935 law that guarantees the right to unionize, collectively bargain, and strike.

Public support for unions is at an all-time high, understandably: The U.S. is likely heading toward a recession, according to economic indicators, as prices and rent rise while wages remain stagnant and corporations post record profits. That’s all on top of what Vox describes as “a tight labor market, record inequality, and a pro-union administration.” Despite this historic rise, union membership was down in 2021, Vox reported, likely a response to “anti-union policy” and “the rise of gig work.”

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