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MADISON, WIS. —The American Dream never seemed real to Justin Smith, who grew up in Ohio’s Akron-Canton area. Factories had vanished, taking well-paying blue-collar jobs with them. Watching his single-parent mom do her best to survive on low-wage gigs, he got used to dreaming small.
Then came the pandemic, which wiped out Smith’s hotel concierge job in Madison, tossing him into a year of unemployment and depression. In 2021, at the age of 34, he found a warehouse job at a retail gaming store for $11 an hour — much less than he’d earned before. It was a financial heartbreak millions of workers know well.
Yet his new job, at Noble Knight Games in a Madison suburb, had a special draw. The store has the world’s largest collection of role-playing, tabletop and video games, old and new, and it’s full of gamers like him, for whom games, since childhood, have always meant good memories and experiences. But the appeal was tempered after hearing his new colleagues’ complaints about low wages.
Smith listened as coworkers worried about not having enough money for gas or lunch, or not being able to afford to live near work. Their struggles stirred long-time memories of just getting by.
Smith was in the same boat.
To afford an apartment near work, Smith and his partner took on two roommates. They put off their hopes of raising a family to avoid the financial struggles his mother had faced.
Watching Noble Knight fail to share the good fortune of its business boom with workers, Smith became so frustrated that he gave his notice in June 2022. In an exit interview, he advocated better working conditions and a $2 an hour raise for everyone. Management promised changes, so he decided to stay.
Then nothing happened. But a major change had just taken place nearby that fanned an already lit spark for the Noble Knight workers.
In May 2022, a group of 28 quality testers at the Madison-area Raven Software had formed the first union at a major video game developer in the United States. It didn’t matter to Smith and his colleagues that Raven workers are in video games; they see themselves as part of the same broader industry, from developers making Call of Duty to retail and warehouse workers helping customers find games they love.
Even before the Raven victory, a word-of-mouth campaign about unionizing had been underway at Noble Knight. But things picked up that summer.
The workers said they didn’t hate the company; they just wanted to make it better for everyone. Indeed, some of the long-time workers had stayed with Noble Knight when it moved from Janesville to suburban Madison in 2018, taking on a longer and more costly commute. Their goals were paid sick leave, better vacation plans and, vitally, raises. A living wage in the Madison area for a single adult was $17.52 in 2022, while the average wage at Noble Knight today is $15. Smith earns $14 after a March 2022 pay hike.
By October, organizers had 70% of the 75-person staff on their side. Company officials tell In These Times they were caught “off guard” by the workers’ request to join a union and that they had only heard a few “off the cuff remarks” about wages.
Smith knew little about unions. An introvert, he soon found himself stepping out of his comfort zone.
Noble Knight promptly hired a union-busting firm that promises to “avoid … a union coming into your business,” which set up meetings with workers. With guidance from the Communications Workers of America (CWA), workers came to those meetings armed with questions and left even more determined, asking why the company would resort to an expensive effort to fight the union when it could have spent that money on them.
By November, 74% of workers supported the union. On the cusp of an official vote with the National Labor Relations Board, Noble Knight abruptly granted the union voluntary recognition in early December.
The workers were holding a strategy meeting on Zoom for the upcoming vote when they got word. Joy erupted, and spread quickly on social media.
Gaining a foothold among the largely nonunion world of video game developers has been a goal of the CWA since 2020, when it created the Campaign to Organize Digital Employees (CODE-CWA). Video games produced $32 billion in revenue in the United States in 2020 alone. It’s an alluring target for unions amid a history of worker complaints and a 2022 survey showing that most video game workers would join a union. A major win for CWA came this January as more than 300 workers at ZeniMax studios, a division of Microsoft, joined the CWA, making it the union’s largest such effort in the industry.
Back in Madison, CWA officials say they’ve begun hearing from workers in other retail gaming jobs who were inspired by Noble Knight.
Now, as Smith and his coworkers set up their union local and prepare for bargaining, his outlook has changed.
“That American dream is achievable,” he says, “once we bargain and get a contract.”
In this new book, longtime organizers and movement educators Mariame Kaba and Kelly Hayes examine the political lessons of the Covid-19 pandemic and its aftermath, including the convergence of mass protest and mass formations of mutual aid. Let This Radicalize You answers the urgent question: What fuels and sustains activism and organizing when it feels like our worlds are collapsing?
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A former labor writer for the Chicago Tribune, Stephen Franklin is a Pulitzer Prize finalist and an adjunct professor at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign School of Labor and Employment Relations.