For once, the FTC is considering a merger that helps the workers
The coming decision about whether to allow Microsoft’s merger with Activision Blizzard to move forward is a bellwether for American antitrust policy. By approving this merger, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) has the opportunity to make a strong statement in favor of economic democracy and provide a blueprint for an enforceable remedy to protect workers from large employers abusing market power to undercut wages and working conditions.
Labor considerations have for too long been absent from antitrust decisions even though the potential harms to workers as the result of mergers are evident. From the start, President Biden made clear that things would be different on his watch. Restoring the American middle class by strengthening unions has been a top priority for his administration, and the president issued an executive order calling on the Department of Justice and the FTC to strengthen antitrust guidelines to address labor market concerns, with a particular focus on the tech sector.
Microsoft was well aware of this changed antitrust climate when it announced its intent to acquire Activision Blizzard, knowing that regulators would be taking a close look at the transaction’s potential impact on workers. It was in this context that we were able to negotiate an unprecedented labor neutrality agreement, which, if the merger is approved, would allow workers at Activision to freely and fairly make a choice about union representation.
Union representation and collective bargaining agreements are the most powerful tools workers have to balance power between themselves and corporations which have too much control over our economy, our democracy and our work lives. Having a strong democracy doesn’t just mean electoral democracy, although that is essential and not something to be taken for granted. It also means having more democratic workplaces, with workers collectively, through their union, negotiating contracts and holding corporate power accountable.
This is critical when considering merger impacts. Collective bargaining is a bulwark against downward pressure on wages from merged employers with increased market power. Contractual protections also mean that union workers are more likely to blow the whistle on dangerous or unethical behavior, which benefits both employees and consumers.
The telecommunications workers of my union know more about the networks they build and maintain than C-suite executives. They have painstakingly documented service quality issues, giving the Federal Communications Commission and state public utility commissions critical insight into conditions on the ground.
There is, arguably, no industry that needs a strong workforce with inside knowledge to expose wrongdoing or stand up for the common good more than tech. Our neutrality agreement with Microsoft is different from other behavioral remedies which have often been tossed aside by companies as soon as the ink was dry on their deals. This is a structural solution, creating a pathway for workers to organize and exercise their true bargaining strength, altering power relations in the labor context but also potentially empowering thousands of consumer-minded watchdogs inside the company. And it’s enforceable through a legally binding agreement.
Sony, which currently has the largest share of the video game console market, has been one of the few vocal opponents of the merger. It is a stark contrast of interests: If the merger is approved and the labor deal with Microsoft is effectuated, Activision Blizzard workers across the United States fighting sexual harassment and other poor working conditions stand to finally have a voice on the job and a chance to shape working conditions throughout the industry, and gamers will have allies inside a corporation with real protections for speaking out in consumers’ interests. If the merger is disapproved, the power relations within the gaming industry for labor stay the same, Sony protects its very profitable position as the industry leader, and consumers will have to wait and see if subscription services mature into a viable gaming option.
FTC chair Lina Khan has been a strong advocate for an antitrust policy that takes workers’ interests and fair market functioning into account. Thanks to her leadership and the outreach and interest of the FTC staff, labor is now part of the national antitrust conversation. Approving this merger with the labor agreement that we fashioned with Microsoft to protect collective bargaining rights would send a game-changing message to corporate America that workers do indeed have a seat at the table and their concerns matter and must be addressed.
It’s time to seal the deal, not blow it up.
Chris Shelton is the president of Communications Workers of America (CWA), which represents hundreds of thousands of workers throughout tech, media, telecom, and other industries. Workers at Microsoft and Activision are organizing to join CWA through the union’s CODE-CWA project.