The following April, Ubisoft posted a 14% year-over-year sales increase for the prior year, with CEO Yves Guillemot saying the company had “the second best profitability among comparable companies in its industry.” Its casual games business grew 40%, with the company hiring roughly 1,300 new employees in the interest of “preparing for the next generation of handheld as well as home consoles.”

Mercier notes that prior to the layoffs, over 35% of the eligible studio members had signed union cards, which in Quebec is enough to force a full studio vote. He says they had been delaying in hopes of getting over 50% to sign, which would automatically grant Longtail a union without a vote. But not only had Longtail lost its two union leaders, the layoffs had mysteriously impacted every other strong supporter of the union effort as well.

“They cut our head off,” Mercier recalls. “We didn’t have any strong supporters anymore. I was left with nearly starting again to zero, but the conditions never materialized to let the campaign run again…They wanted to make sure that the cancer couldn’t grow.”

Without Perron or Lemire, with their headcount decimated, and fear of retaliation higher than ever, this was the final nail in the coffin of Longtail’s union efforts. Longtail, such as it was, briefly soldiered on. The Quebec studio was formally folded into Ubisoft the following year (a move that also resulted in a few more employees being laid off), and development efforts within Longtail itself shifted primarily to its Halifax location…which was then also folded into Ubisoft in 2015. The ultimate absorption of Longtail happened just as its sister studio Gameloft was gobbled up by Vivendi amid Vivendi’s attempt at an Ubisoft takeover, and may have been a preventative measure to keep the same thing from happening in Halifax. It’s unclear what happened to the New York branch of Longtail Studios – presumably it was shuttered or similarly wrapped up into its informal parent company, as the last game released by Longtail Studios, Trivial Pursuit Live!, came out in 2015 and Longtail’s website ceased to function in late 2018.

A Last Ditch Effort

But even after their efforts failed, Lemire, Perron, and several others rallied one last time to hold Ubisoft and Longtail accountable for their treatment of employees. When Lemire learned about the layoffs in the wake of his firing, he was inspired to try and rekindle the unionization flame, if not at Longtail, then elsewhere in the industry. So he filed a claim against Longtail with the Quebec Commission des normes de travail, alleging he had been wrongfully terminated for unionization activity.

“If we could just raise awareness, maybe catch the attention of the government or some journalists, we could still get something from this fight and maybe even inspire other workers from the video game business to fight for their rights and dignity,” Lemire tells me. “At that point, I wasn’t even expecting to win. It would have been a bonus, but my objective was to raise the curtain on the abuse in the video game industry.”

But Lemire wasn’t the only one who took Longtail management to court. A group of laid off employees also banded together for multiple other cases in the same court, though theirs alleged wrongful termination rather than termination for unionization specifically. Multiple employees who were involved recalled receiving emails from a government program specifically designed to help those recently laid off find new positions, advertising their own exact jobs back to them. One source sent IGN a copy of a job posting they were sent by Emploi Quebec, which provides assistance to those impacted by collective dismissal. The job posting was the exact same job they had just been laid off from at Longtail.

I wasn’t even expecting to win…my objective was to raise the curtain on the abuse in the video game industry.

But as before, Lemire and his colleagues’ push for accountability quickly unraveled. Mercier recalls asking AFPC if they would provide legal representation, but his request was denied. As a last ditch effort, he opted to represent Lemire himself, but admits to me that he had little experience and struggled to put together a case due to Lemire’s history of being outspoken in the workplace. Longtail claimed Lemire was incompetent and a poor employee – though multiple other employees I spoke to pointed out to me that Lemire’s conduct had seemingly been tolerable to Longtail until the union situation arose. The judge, admitting he was unable to assess whether or not Lemire had been competent at his job, gave Longtail the benefit of the doubt and ruled in its favor. Lemire’s case was crushed, but he hoped his trial would at least inspire the cause of his former coworkers.

His hopes were in vain. Lemire’s loss took the wind out of the others’ efforts, and Mercier told one of their group that because it was classified as a collective dismissal, he had no argument he could present the court in their favor. He filed initial paperwork on their behalf, but then declined to be involved further, a move that left many of those I spoke to feeling bitter and hurt. Lemire tells me he called Mercier after he left, telling Mercier he had betrayed him and the others, and that Lemire would never forgive him. The two haven’t spoken since.

“It’s painful to me,” Mercier recalls. “They were very good people, but unfortunately I was left with no option. We didn’t have any legal arguments. They played the anti-union playbook properly. It was seriously one of the worst moments of my career, and I do believe it’s still the worst moment of my career, having to look these people in the face and tell them that I could do nothing.”

With Lemire’s loss and Mercier gone, most of those involved in the case gave up, but one stuck it out all the way to trial. It was there that Longtail, fully funded and represented by large Quebec law firm Langlois Kronström Desjardins, claimed that the layoffs were a lawful collective dismissal. Per trial documents seen by IGN, Longtail argued that Canada was feeling the effects of the 2007 global financial crisis, and with game development moving more and more toward 3D worlds, its Longtail teams of mostly 2D developers and artists – which had made up the bulk of the layoffs, if not all – weren’t able to keep up. Mobile games, it said, weren’t profitable. It was pivoting back to console.

It’s still the worst moment of my career, having to look these people in the face and tell them that I could do nothing.

The remaining employee argued back, pointing out that many of the positions (such as UI artists) were relevant in 3D development and their skill sets were still useful. They claimed that they were terminated not due to the economy or their skills, but due to “corporate restructuring and business reorientation,” saying that their team in particular was targeted for “having a negative attitude.” They noted that because Longtail was rehiring for the same role, it hadn’t been necessary to terminate them. But Longtail denied these claims. The judge pointed out that Longtail hadn’t explicitly hired anyone to replace the employee in question, saying their suspicions were insufficient. Without a lawyer, a “preponderance of evidence,” or funding to press the matter, the second complaint was also lost.

Following their dismissal and the trials, multiple sources I spoke to said they struggled to find work in the games industry in Quebec. Several believed that word of their unionization attempt and subsequent court case had spread in the local industry, discouraging companies from hiring anyone involved. One person I spoke to who left of their own accord after the layoffs told me that when they told their manager they were leaving, the manager explicitly told them that if they wanted to, they could stop them from getting another job in the industry. All but one of the people I spoke to for this piece left the games industry for good in the years immediately following their departure from Longtail.

The Unionized Future

The story of Longtail Studios is a sad one, and not exactly encouraging at a time when unionization efforts across gaming are ramping up as workers push for better conditions industry-wide. But one hopeful note that struck me while writing this was that despite their struggles and ultimate loss, my sources still fundamentally believed that games industry unions were not just possible, but critical to a better future for the industry.

“Years later, I still think this was the correct thing to do,” one source said. “In fact, I could not do otherwise. Too many employees had poor conditions to be tolerated. Unionizing could also have been a way to expose all the corruption in our government and in Longtail/Ubisoft by forcing a more transparent budget. We should always fight against corruption and exploitation, no matter what the circumstances are. When facing unethical big businesses and shady government deals, unionizing is the only way to keep the forces in balance. It’s true that we suffered heavy losses when doing so, but there are lessons to learn from this. So yes, I would still encourage others to unionize for themselves and for others.”

Years later, I still think this was the correct thing to do. In fact, I could not do otherwise.

One especially heartening note came from my original source. In their initial email to IGN, they told us they were inspired to mention their experience at Longtail because they had heard about Microsoft’s recent messaging around taking a “neutral approach” toward a possible Activision-Blizzard union (should the acquisition go through), and its later voluntary recognition of a ZeniMax QA testers union and ad in the Washington Post expressing the positive impact of unions. While there is never a guarantee Microsoft might not change its mind down the line, my source was astonished at how the narrative had changed in a decade and a half.

“In hindsight, I dunno…at the time [unionizing] just made sense. I was making around $30,000 CAD a year when the North American average was almost double,” they told me. “We knew that the salaries were paid in part by the government (public funds) and we just wanted to have good conditions and be paid fairly. Conditions weren’t bad, but it just made sense to protect what we had. It was frowned upon when you said, ‘No’ to overtime, those types of situations had to go away. I regret signing that card in a way.

“That’s why when Microsoft said that they were okay with their studios unionizing it’s HUGE news! That’s a giant company saying it’s okay. Big corporations, ahem, game companies don’t like it when they don’t make tons of profits. They don’t really care about employees. They care about profits. I love the people that work at Ubisoft, many are still friends. I absolutely despise dishonesty and exploitation. I lost my career. I’m still affected by it and I’m still crying everytime I talk about it. I’m mad crying.

“I don’t want anybody to go through this because they tried to unionize. They shouldn’t be scared of it. I want to encourage the whole industry to talk about it out in the open. Make it normal! Unions were created for a reason! Better conditions and a fair slice of the pie.”

Interviewee responses have been lightly edited for clarity.

Thank you to Erwan Lafleuriel and IGN France for providing translation on all French documentation for this piece, and thank you to Vincent Chevarie and Renaud Loiselle Dupuis at Au bas de l’échelle for their assistance in interpreting Quebec labor law.

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