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Wrestling With Labour Laws

For your consideration, a tale of two tweets:

 

In any other workplace in the world, the series of events depicted above (literal hours apart) would be a pretty cut-and-dry case for wrongful termination, or even flat-out discrimination. Zelina Vega, pictured above (who’s now changed her name to ‘Thea Trinidad’), was fired after openly declaring her support for setting up a union in World Wrestling Entertainment (WWE). 

And so, since today is Wrestlemania, the biggest day of the year for wrestling fans, we thought it would be timely to tell the story of unions in the squared circle. Or, more accurately, the story of why no such union exists.

Wrestlemania 35

Wrestlemania 35

Wrestlemania I: A Chance for Change

There was a moment in time when everything could have been different. It was prior to the first Wrestlemania in 1985. Jesse “The Body” Ventura, a top performer who later became Governor of Minnesota stood up in a locker room of hulking meatheads and told them that this was their moment. They were the stars of the show - the bulging, oiled-up labour - and they had the power. 

In the lead-up to the biggest wrestling event that had ever taken place, they could stand up to the boss (one Vincent Kennedy McMahon, the villain in this story) as a union and demand their own terms and conditions. However, Hulk Hogan, known bootlicker and Hall-of-Fame-level racist and scumbag, immediately ran to the boss and let him know what was happening and it was swiftly shut down.

They were the stars of the show - the bulging, oiled-up labour - and they had the power.

Thus began decades of unchecked power and unchallenged abuse by an employer with no seeming interest in the wellbeing of anyone working for him.

Vince's Reign of Terror

The employment practices of the WWE are infamous for their complete imbalance of power. Everyone, whether you’re The Rock or a scrawny young rookie, is classed as an independent contractor. No one has health insurance, even for injuries sustained in the course of work, which is clearly very dangerous at times. They have to supply their own gear and props. No one’s travel is paid for, even though the constant touring schedule can see performers on the road for 300+ days a year.

But on top of the things you would expect for a workplace engaging “independent contractors” there are conditions that clearly point to the fact that these are workers like anyone else. They are barred from working for any other promotion. Their contracts can be terminated by management at any time, but they cannot terminate their own contract if they wish. If a construction company classed everyone as independent contractors but told everyone they weren’t allowed to work anywhere else, it’d be a pretty strong case for those workers being proper employees. We see it all the time in Australia, especially in labour hire companies. It’s called sham contracting, and it’s used to deprive permanent workers of entitlements. 

There are many examples, on top of the baseline conditions of performers, of WWE and Vince McMahon treating its workers poorly, recklessly or even straight up harmfully.

There was the night Owen Hart died because Vince brought in scab labour to do the rigging during a spot in which Owen would descend from the rafters before a match, and instead he fell 100 feet and died in the ring. After he died, and it was announced live on air that he was dead, the show was ordered to continue.

Owen Hart (left) was killed in a WWE ring, aged 34

Owen Hart (left) was killed in a WWE ring, aged 34

There were the years of head trauma, steroid abuse, steroid withdrawal, physical burnout and psychological neglect that was ignored until it led to Chris Benoit murdering his wife and son before taking his own life. Vince denies any responsibility for it, despite several autopsies clearly showing Benoit’s work had effectively given him dementia by the time he turned 40.  

There are the countless individuals who were chewed up and left with nothing after putting their bodies on the line for the enjoyment of fans and the profits of the company. One of the key functions of unions in the USA is to provide a pension after retirement. The Screen Actors Guild (SAG) - the union that would more than likely cover professional wrestlers - does exactly this, as well as provide health insurance. But in an industry that has been so hostile towards unions for decades, many have been left destitute and broke.

There are the countless individuals who were chewed up and left with nothing after putting their bodies on the line for the enjoyment of fans and the profits of the company.

"I Support Unionization"

Of all the things that could have led to a renewed conversation about a wrestlers’ union - health insurance, travel schedules, merchandise sales - it was video game streaming that did it in the end. Many stars use their popularity to engage with fans on platforms like Twitch, Cameo and OnlyFans. It builds their profiles, and in some cases earns them additional income. 

Of course, McMahon could not allow this to continue. All performers' contracts were altered (unilaterally, mind you) to forbid them from engaging in any unauthorised third-party activities. Many were vocal in their disappointment, many others went silently into obedience. Some, like popular talent Paige, started speaking openly about the need for a union in the WWE.

   

Zelina Vega, who was let go after her tweet about wrestlers unionising, refused to cease producing content on her cosplay-centric OnlyFans account. After she made her feelings known, SAG-AFTRA publicly reached out to her on Twitter saying that if she or any of her co-workers wanted to talk, the union was there for them. We know that Vega spoke directly with SAG-AFTRA President Gabrielle Carteris, but little is known about the detail, likely in order to avoid giving the game away to WWE management. 

Vega has since signed a deal with another employer, though it is not known who. Her husband is still employed with WWE. 

At the end of the day (“When it’s all said and done,” as The Rock might say) the squared circle is a workplace like any other. Many workers don’t earn the huge sums of money we might imagine. They are away from their families for months at a time. It must be an incredibly difficult lifestyle, with virtually no work-life balance. 

The WWE likes to present itself as the embodiment of the American Dream: work hard and you can reach the top. That brass ring is dangled so high and so often that it can be hard to remember that it’s all scripted. It’s not the NBA or the NFL. It’s an ensemble cast, a TV production. It could be heavily unionised like Broadway or Hollywood are. 

So why isn't it? Well, elite-level union-busting in the WWE aside, we might point to the fact that Donald Trump is in the WWE Hall of Fame. It's a weird industry. Organising class consciousness would be harder than starting at number 1 and winning the Royal Rumble.

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