The Firm

Code Union, Code Better


“It was only because he was so numb and beaten himself that Jurgis did not worry more about this. But he never thought of it, except when he was dragged to it – he lived like a dumb beast of burden, knowing only the moment in which he was.”

– Upton Sinclair, The Jungle

“The love of my life comes home late at night complaining of a headache that will not go away and a chronically upset stomach, and my happy supportive smile is running out.”

– “ea_spouse,” EA: The Human Story

Powerful words from two very insightful people. Ninety-nine years ago, Upton Sinclair wrote about ill-treated immigrant meatpacking industry workers unable to stand up for themselves. Heinous injuries went unreported; workers were expected to tally long, grueling hours of work. Management viewed them as replaceable cogs in a machine with an endless supply of workers – there were always more poor eastern Europeans who couldn’t speak English to grind sausage.

One year ago, an anonymous writer known only as “ea_spouse” wrote about ill-treated game designers unable to stand up for themselves. They were expected to tally long, grueling hours of work; illness and injuries caused by fatigue went ignored and unreported. Management viewed them as replaceable cogs in a machine with an endless supply of workers – there were always more young college graduates unaware of the term “unconscionable contract” to code the next version of Madden. And once they are burned out from months, even years, of overtime, their jobs may be outsourced to even more willing people in India.

If we continue at the rate we’re going, we’re either going to be worrying about a bunch of college-aged kids with computer science degrees working at McDonald’s, too disillusioned to continue in their chosen field or worse, the position they previously held was moved overseas to a more bottom line-friendly locale. For the sake of trying to save money on production costs, why not ship off art production to Romania? Or customer service to India? But to paraphrase the old clich

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But in fairness to administrations current and past, when Teddy was around, America was a very different place. We weren’t yet a Beacon of Light Standing on a Hill for other cultures to gaze upon in awe. We were the new kid on the block, trying out something called Rugged Individualism, figuring out exactly who we were and what our place in the world was. Europe was a boat ride away; we’d just secured the West and were stretching our arms. Strong decisions were made by strong people.

Unfortunately, that time has long since past. We’re the fattest kid on a block that’s shrinking every day due to the Information Age. Our American Dream has changed from a house with a white picket fence to a wild goose chase of consumerism and faux-Roman decadence. We’re forever in search of more toys, more cars, more women, more money. And certain members of a certain socioeconomic class are convinced the best way to achieve that dream is to sacrifice those below them in the name of unfettered capitalism.

As the Baby Echo generation enters a job market still choked by their parents and in some cases, their grandparents, we continue to force the price of skilled labor into the ground. Coming close to their parents’ salaries isn’t something people dare to dream anymore; an American generation is doing worse than the one before it.

It might seem that the only way to protect our Way of Life is to force industry to start paying fair wages for fair work globally. But, the global option just isn’t going to happen; the world at large is far too maligned to our political bent to expect everyone to agree to a world-wide solution. We need to think domestically before we can spread such a grand dream to others. We’re left with making American companies color inside the lines.

But how? We can’t wait for legislation to prevent this; the president and his party believe devaluing skilled labor (or shipping it away – ultimately the same end) is a good idea. We have to give legislators from both sides of the political spectrum a reason to shift their weight behind the American software worker – we need a whole boatload of us to leverage some lobbying power on a few big names in Congress. If we don’t, we need to prepare ourselves for the reality that the Good Ship American Software Industry will pull a Titanic – and we’re not first class passengers. The best way to do this is also the most controversial, something so stigmatized by “big business” (prepare your tinfoil hats) that among most young, educated, white-collar workers, it’s a four-letter word. The software industry needs to unionize.

There, I said it. I’ll wash my mouth out with soap later. But think about it. It worked last time. Since Samuel Gompers led the American Federation of Labor in the late 1800s until the late 1960s, unions worked with (and against) large businesses to ensure skilled workers received fair wages, compensation for injuries and retained the 40 hour work week.

This is not to say they’re perfect; some large unions are known to be hideously corrupt and have been the target of numerous anti-trust suits. But the same can be said for large companies, as well. Any large organization that grows unchecked will eventually grow too powerful for its own good. This is why a delicate balance between an organized union and top brass is what the software industry desperately needs.

It’s not anyone’s fault, really. Video game design began as a frontier science. Teenage kids roamed like Kerouac, hawking video games in baggies and boxing their own releases a decade after they made their first million. The early years of the industry were a Hemingway novel set in a nouveau Old West. You got by on talent, hard work and grit. Teddy Roosevelt’s spirit kicked a horse into a gallop here, and gaming exploded into a gold rush, where ultimately the only people making money were the shysters selling mining equipment.

But the time for Rugged Individualism in gaming has passed. Winging it from company to company only means you’ll end up working progressively longer hours for progressively less pay. Unless workers organize, the gaming industry is going to end up like textiles or meatpacking – shipped overseas or so rife with managerial corruption and lobbying, we’ll all be making minimum wage until we’re replaced for younger people capable of working longer hours. And it’s already starting. Just ask ea_spouse. And in her rallying cry, we know where it all has to start.

Is our industry really so heavenly we don’t need the comfortable assurance of tenure and normal work hours? Any victim of outsourcing or frequent “crunch time” is crazy to think so. No, things have swung in the direction of upper management, to the point where workers are forced to accept low pay and long hours out of fear, and it’s time to bring the equilibrium back to balance. It’s time to make Electronic Arts a union shop.

EA employs 2,500 people inside the U.S. They boast that none of their employees are “represented by a union, guild or other collective bargaining association.” But really, why aren’t they? Throughout the country, all kinds of skilled workers are part of “collective bargaining associations,” be it aircraft control tower operators or automobile assembly line workers. In certain parts of the country, grocery store chains are union shops. Ever wonder why the cute old woman who’s been ringing up your TV dinners and beer has been there for 15 years? It’s because she can afford to be.

In ea_spouse, we had our Upton Sinclair, but we’re without a Teddy Roosevelt. Without a friend in politics, we’re a massive blob with no direction, no drive. Someone is going to have to step up from within to give us a figurehead. The industry is in the middle of a rockstar drought, but we need someone like the industry’s founding fathers, able to capture our hearts and minds, not only with a game, but with a personality and a cause. But with corporate cultures disintegrating as bottom lines and mergers usurp artistic vision, rockstars are getting harder and harder to come by.

Pray for one to rise from the bowels of some dungeon-like cube farm. We need a savior-caliber leader to keep us together, and to keep us employed.

Joe Blancato is a Contributing Editor for The Escapist Magazine, in addition to being the Founder of

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