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Riot Games employees stage walkout to protest forced arbitration

People gather at a walkout put on by Riot Games employees on May 6, outside Riot's Santa Monica studio. Employees staged the walkout to express their disagreement with Riot's policy of forced arbitration for sexual discrimination and harassment cases. Photo by Emily Rand

SANTA MONICA -- Close to 200 current Riot Games employees walked out Monday afternoon and gathered in the company's parking lot to express their concerns and disagreement with the way Riot has handled ongoing allegations of sexual harassment and discrimination.

"I love my job. I love what I do here. And that's why I'm terrified to be here right now," Insights Researcher and League of Legends Championship Series referee Ronnie Blackburn told the crowd. "But I will not apologize for the trembling of my hands and the wavering of my voice. ... Whether you are here to show your support, express your dissent or simply discuss so that you can better understand the situation, this is a hard and scary thing to be a part of, so thank you. To the senior leadership, I ask you: Why forced arbitration?"

To intermittent applause and the occasional shout from the crowd of coworkers, Blackburn continued.

"What we want is a timely end to the systemic silencing of employees and the promise of a fair trial for the current plaintiffs," she said. "We are not dissonant for the sake of dissonance. We are dissonant for the sake of justice, for the sake of Riot living up to its values and for the sake of Riot being the great place that we all want it to be.

"We are not here because we hate Riot. We are here because we believe in the values that Riot has proclaimed. Rioters are Riot. We are Riot."

A major sticking point for employees is Riot's recent motion to push the lawsuits of Chanel Dawnee and Jessica Kent, two of four ongoing cases against Riot, into private arbitration. The cases are two of three wrongful termination suits against Riot, which is also facing a proposed class action lawsuit.

Rumors of a walkout surfaced shortly after the motion in Dawnee's and Kent's cases. In response, Riot met with several current employees and also addressed the subject in its biweekly town hall.

"We've made a call that we will pivot our approach," Riot said in a statement Friday. "As soon as current litigation is resolved, we will give all new Rioters the choice to opt-out of mandatory arbitration for individual sexual harassment and sexual assault claims. At that time, we will also commit to have a firm answer around expanding the scope and extending this opt-out to all Rioters."

That compromise was not enough for many current employees at Riot, who reiterated during the walkout that Rioters in ongoing litigation deserve the right to choose how they want to confront their abusers, be it in a court of law or through private arbitration.

"Corporations should not force employees into binding arbitration, especially in the face of sexual harassment, assault or discrimination," said Associate Creative Lead Yoko Colby, who earlier shared her personal story with the crowd.

"There's probably a really bright and really healthy future for Riot. I think that, for the most part, Riot is a wonderful place to work at, and I am grateful for my amazing team and all of my friends here. But -- and this is not a surprise to my team, by the way -- I am quitting in two weeks. I was failed by the internal investigation process. It left me feeling what happened to me and what happened to other women didn't matter. I didn't matter."

Pushback against forced private arbitration, especially when written directly into employee contracts, isn't new to the gaming or tech industry and is part of a larger, national conversation on employee rights. Riot Games has been the latest battleground for these employee rights, particularly in cases of alleged sexual harassment and discrimination.

"I've spent every day listening to people who were scared," Riot writer Indu Reddy said.

On April 24, the Supreme Court handed down a 5-4 ruling that employees are not entitled to class-action suits in cases where private arbitration is ambiguous -- for example, where the clause is written into an employee contract and signing that contract implies consent -- giving more power to large companies to settle disputes through more informal settings rather than public courts. That was the most recent case in a series of rulings favoring larger companies over individual employees, including a similar 5-4 decision in 2018 in the case of Epic Systems Corp. vs. Lewis, which stated that arbitration agreements must be enforced.

Two months prior to the SCOTUS ruling, Google ended its forced arbitration for all employee disputes, following up on their November 2018 statement that it would end forced arbitration in cases of alleged sexual harassment or assault. In May 2018, Uber also removed forced arbitration for sexual harassment and assault cases. Frances Frei, a member of Riot Games' diversity and inclusion and culture strike team, was part of those efforts for Uber before joining Riot.

"We carried the emotional burden of sharing perspectives on how forcing victims of harassment and discrimination into arbitration is wrong," walkout organizers said in a statement. "Today during Unplugged, Frances Frei also expressed discomfort with any policy that uses 'forced' and 'sexual harassment' in the same sentence. In her time at Uber, the company upheld 'doing the right thing, period,' by ending the controversy."

In the parking lot of Riot Games, current Rioters called upon their senior leadership to "do the right thing" for those currently in litigation in addition to their pledge to remove forced private arbitration for future Riot Games employees.