The idea of introducing a wrestling union is about as old as I am. In fact, while I was researching The Fabulous Moolah episode of Dark Side of the Ring, I came across a shoot interview from 1990. Interestingly, they talked about the fact that wrestlers don’t have insurance, and the subject has been seldomly discussed in the past three decades.
The fact that someone like Moolah wouldn’t say “no comment” to this (which she was known to do) is odd. But perhaps she knew more than anybody how crooked the system is? Here’s a rough transcript from the interview, after she talked about helping lady wrestlers who have no insurance or retirement funds.:
Interviewer #2: “Why do you think insurance companies won’t insure a wrestler?”
Moolah: “I don’t know, I don’t think the men wrestler’s can get it either.”
Interviewer #2: “That would be an interesting question to ask a life insurance company.”
Moolah: “Too much risk, I suppose. Right, right.”
Interviewer #1: “Maybe we should have a life insurer on the show one day and grill them on the subject?”
Good Or Bad?
At least two people with plenty of experience have touched upon the subject this year: Eric Bischoff and Jim Cornette. Bischoff thinks forming a union would inadvertently hurt the pay of some wrestlers in the long term. Cornette discussed the possibility of most wrestlers banding together at the start of the coronavirus pandemic, collectively saying “No WWE, we will not work til there is a union”.
And what would WWE be able to do? It’s not like they could easily replace most of the talent in a matter of weeks. Cornette shared his opinion in his usual angry way, but the logic is sound. As for Bischoff, he didn’t detail why forming a union would hurt the business. It could be said that forming a union would cost promotions more to afford the new contracts and insurance for their wrestlers, so ticket prices would need to be higher and they’d make less profit. This could have the negative effect of putting smaller promotions out of business. You can read these interviews at the following links:
What Is A Union?
Next up, I would like to explain some terms for anyone who may be unaware. First, let’s explain what a union is meant to do. In other countries it is often called a “Trade Union”, but in the United States it may be known as a “Labor Union”. I have adapted the following description from the Wikipedia entry.
“A union is an association of workers forming a legal unit, usually called a “bargaining unit”, which acts as an agent and legal representative for a unit of employees in all matters of law arising from or in the administration of a collective agreement. Unions typically fund the organization, head office, and legal team functions through regular fees or union dues. The delegate staff of the representation in the workforce are made up of workplace volunteers who are appointed by members in elections.
Unions are usually formed for the purpose of securing improvement in pay, benefits, working conditions, or social and political status. Through an elected leadership and bargaining committee, bargains with the employer on behalf of union members, negotiate contracts with employers. The most common purpose is “maintaining or improving the conditions of their employment”. This may include wages, work rules, occupational health and safety standards, complaint procedures, rules governing status of employees including promotions, just cause conditions for termination, and employment benefits.
Originating in Great Britain, trade unions became popular in many countries during the Industrial Revolution. Unions may be composed of individual workers, professionals, past workers, students, apprentices or the unemployed. Trade union density, or the percentage of workers belonging to a trade union, is highest in the Nordic countries.”
What Would Having A Union Mean?
What I can take from the above description, as it pertains to sports entertainment and professional wrestling, are the following points:
– Securing improvement in pay. So this would mean main event talent would likely have their salaries reduced (which they won’t believe is fair), while entry level enhancement talents will be guaranteed more. They would likely secure better merchandising deals though, so the most popular talent would benefit more from this income and likely wouldn’t lose out too much. It would encourage wrestlers to push for their own merchandising, which the company may be forced to comply with if negotiated.
– Benefits such as health insurance, especially for those on lower incomes. This would mean talent who are injured through no fault of their own, wouldn’t end up in debt. This would likely hurt companies because of the nature of wrestling, so they may discourage dangerous moves & match types to save money. For anyone who enjoys wrestling matches with an element of risk? We would see less of it. Promotions like CZW would likely close, unless wrestlers agreed to pay for their own medical bills.
– Better working conditions. This could mean things like guaranteed holidays, so talents are not on the road 24/7 all year around, and have time to recover from possible sidelining injuries. It could also mean fairer booking, so talents are not sat doing nothing while “creative has nothing for you”. There could also be other perks like better guaranteed security on the road, and new guidelines for emergency situations like pandemics; such as having the right to stay at home with the guarantee their job will not be at risk.
– Complaint procedures. Situations like (former NXT superstar) Jordan Myles’ racism dispute could be handled properly without him being released from contract. There could be a third party to sit in and mediate these situations, so employer and employee relationships can be mended. Also, not being allowed to work for any reason while being under contract, unfair treatment of talent (bullying/hazing), sexual abuse, and other discretion’s can be brought to light.
– Just causes for termination. This is a huge, because how many times have we heard of someone being released because they are “injury prone”, or are “difficult to work with”. Every employer may terminate someone if they are no longer required, but there should be a sufficient reason. Firing someone for injury, getting pregnant, or mild disputes with staff/other talent shouldn’t be used against them. Violating the Wellness Policy, getting arrested, damaging the company’s reputation, or putting other talent in danger during a match, are good examples for a promotion having the right to end a contract.
There are plenty of other points I could make on what having a union would mean, but I would like to move on to “Freelance”. What is a freelancer? What is expected of them? And what should they be allowed to do given their status? Again, the description below is adapted from the Wikipedia entry:
A person who is self-employed and not necessarily committed to a particular employer long-term. Freelance workers are sometimes represented by a company or a temporary agency that resells labor to clients; others work independently or use professional associations or websites to get work. While the term “independent contractor” would be used in a different register of English to designate the tax and employment classes of this type of worker.
The term “freelancing” is most common in culture and creative industries. Fields, professions, and industries where freelancing is predominant include: music, writing, acting, computer programming, web design, graphic design, translating and illustrating, film and video production and other forms of piece work which some cultural theorists consider as central to the cognitive-cultural economy.
As someone who has two jobs in the UK, one as an employee (Job A), and the other as a freelancer employee (Job B), the differences are easy to spot.
- Under my employer for Job A, I get guaranteed paid holidays every year. Job B does not give me that. If my employer wants to give me a paid holiday, that is cool, but it’s not a guarantee.
- I get sick pay under Job A up to a certain point without a sick note from the doctor, and longer if I get a sick note. Job B does not have any sick pay, so my employer does not have to give me anything if I am too sick to work; it’s up to them.
- I pay tax and have part of my wage contributed to my pension in Job A. It’s not the same with freelance, as it’s more of a cash-in-hand deal where we negotiate how much I get depending on how much (or the quality) work I have done, and how much they are willing to give.
- Job A has disciplinary procedures and cannot fire me out of the blue. There has to be sufficient reason. Job B however, has none of these and can choose not to have me on their books for any, or even no reason.
- Job A has bosses and supervisors who instruct me on how, and when the job is to be done. They will let me know if something isn’t up to standard. Job B has a boss, but they do not tell me how to do the job. They ask me to do a minimum amount and I decide when and how to do this in my own time.
Freelancing In WWE
We’ve all heard about the infamous WWE contract. It’s an extensive, detailed document informing newly signed superstars on how, when, where and what they can do. There is any degree of their work which is improvised, it would be parts of matches promos; if they are allowed creative freedom. But for the rest of the time, everything is micro-managed.
– They are told when and where to do their work, like a regular employee. WWE tells them what the finish is and how to do it. Promos are written and superstars must rehearse to do it the way they would like it to be done. This is not freelancing.
– If a superstar does something the company doesn’t like they are “buried”. They often done do this in two ways, either via humiliation on TV, or by not booking them for a long time. Because they are freelancers, the company does not have designated disciplinary procedures. Instead, each case is unique and the higher ups decide how they will punish the superstar. This should not happen to freelancers. Either use them, or let them move on to another job.
– There are often clauses written in to contracts not allowing them to work for other companies for a set number of days after being released. This is done to stall their careers, hurting their future prospects. These clauses are signed off on by the freelancer, but only because WWE is their dream job and they have no other choice but to sign. No other freelance jobs would have these clauses. It’s like telling a plumber he can’t go work another job the next day because you don’t like the person living a few doors away.
– A more recent situation is the talk of WWE banning wrestlers from social media platforms. Many have social media accounts to plug their own shows and make extra revenue in their spare time (or while they’re sat at home with injury). This wasn’t an issue in WWE til Zack Ryder got over by plugging his own show. Since then, WWE has gradually clamped down on this venture, steadily putting in more rulings to control it. As freelancers, talents have the right to do what they like outside of wrestling; so long as it does not breach WWE’s property. So why WWE feels like it can go a step further to stop this practice altogether? Is questionable.
– Storylines, angles and gimmicks should be a collaborative effort. In the past, John Cena, Steve Austin and others have shared stories of turning down angles and gimmicks they felt weren’t good or outright offensive. However, talents further down the totem pole often won’t speak up against anything they don’t like in fear they will be buried or lose their jobs.
So The Revival had a tough time on the main roster, because they weren’t playing ball with Vince McMahon’s vision. They wanted to do things their way and weren’t afraid to tell the boss a comedy gimmick isn’t happening. As freelancers, it should be an agreement between both parties. When the employer is telling the freelancer how to do their job, it’s no longer freelancing.
What Would It Take To Form A Union?
If a union was easy to set up, I believe it would’ve happened years ago. The key issue I can see is getting the ball rolling. Who creates it? When it’s formed, who runs it? Where will wrestlers find the time to make something like this? Why would any of the legends care to set it up? When in their minds, wrestling is and will always be this way? Would top talent want to join it when they benefit the most from the system and would likely lose out? And what about the independents? Will they have the same freedoms as before? Would promotions be able to afford the changes?
Other than forming the union, health insurance is the biggest hurdle. Does everyone get it? Would it make ticket prices higher to compensate? What if a wrestler injures themselves (or others) through carelessness? For example, would Matt Hardy be able to claim on his insurance if he gets needlessly smashed in the face by a chair? Or would that come out of Sammy Guevara’s insurance? Does the company have to pay for that? Or would it come out of Guevara’s pocket? And then there’s the question of dangerous match types. Why would you risk hurting several guys in a ladder match? When it could cost you a ton in medical bills? The wrestlers might be up for taking more risks because they know they wouldn’t be paying for it.
These are the two biggest roadblocks in forming a union. Til someone sits down and irons out a fair way of doing this for both talent and promotion, it will continue to be talked about… but nothing will ever come of it. And it would need to be by someone who has no bias toward either side, meaning it can’t be a wrestling fan or any wrestler who remains bitter over how they were treated.
As you can see, there would be several benefits to the talent in the industry if they were given fair representation. Negotiating with promotions would create a healthier business, where the wrestlers would get fairer pay, better job security, and guaranteed time off. However, it would hurt the only model the business knows. It would shake wrestling’s core, and everyone… including fans, would feel this change almost immediately. Some people will say “if it’s not broke, don’t fix it”. But how many times have we heard stories of injustice? How many decades will it go on for, til something disastrous forces the changes?
Evolution is good, but the wrestling circus is determined to keep doing what it does year on year, never changing, profiteering from the wrestler’s blood, sweat and tears. In the end, the system will chew most wrestlers up, and spit them out the other side with hardly anything to show for it. No pensions, no insurance, and little skills that can be used in a new line of work. With that said, do you think wrestlers should form a union? And are there any straightforward ways of getting through some of the highlighted roadblocks? Please let me know what you think in the comments. Thanks for reading.