Zelina Vega’s WWE release on Friday has kicked more fuel on the fire that is the conversation around pro wrestlers possibly joining or creating a union. With that in mind, I spent the weekend researching the various ways in which pro wrestlers could actually go about getting organized. Along the way I was introduced to a noted labor lawyer who also helped to better inform me on how processes like this usually play out.
From what I have gathered, there are two main ways in which pro wrestlers could go about organizing: Join an existing union, such as, SAG-AFTRA or create a union of their own. In this article I hope to shed some lights on how both processes could go about happening. Both scenarios are entirely possible and could result in some kind of entity representing pro wrestlers by the end of next year. There’s also, of course, the chance that another sort of agreement is made between companies and the talent where a union is not made.
The first route for pro wrestlers to pursue when trying to organize would be to form their own union. The way that process begins is by forming a new union and then having wrestlers start to fill out what are called union “authorization cards.” If at least 30% of the roster sign these cards and the cards are submitted to the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB), the NLRB will commence the process to hold an election. The NLRB would then decide whether or not sufficient authorization cards had been collected based on the pool of talent they felt qualified for such a union. For example, they may ask that 30% of pro wrestlers who work for WWE AND AEW submit cards, not just WWE.
Now, you are probably saying, “Anyone caught filling out these cards is going to get fired.” Well, while that may be a popular notion, it’s actually against the law to fire someone because they are trying to create a union. If a company were to fire someone on those grounds that employee could file an unfair labor practice complaint (referred to as a “charge”) with the NLRB, and if found to have merit, that complaint would either be settled or adjudicated by the NLRB, which could result in the termination being overturned, the fired wrestler receiving compensation for lost wages and the employer may be required to publicly post notice regarding any violations of the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA). Employees seeking to form or join a union are protected from retaliation under the NLRA, but the employer must have knowledge of the protected union activity, which may support the argument that wrestlers need not hide their support for unionization in order to benefit from the law’s protection in this respect.
In 2018 and 2019 former UFC fighter Leslie Smith dealt with the delicate issue of trying to create a fighters union. The way she went about doing it was to create a website (ProjectSpearhead.com) that included information about the fighters union she was trying to start. The site also includes a private authorization card portal where talent can submit their names anonymously. That information is then sent to a lawyer that Leslie was working with who did not reveal any submissions to Leslie or other entities.
A similar system could be started by a pro wrestler, or interested party, to start collecting authorization cards on behalf of pro wrestlers. It should be noted that while Leslie Smith was very successful sourcing authorization cards from fighters she was ultimately unsuccessful in creating a fighters union. While it’s not definitely clear what happened it’s worth pointing out that Peter Robb, the current General Counsel of the NLRB, was appointed by Donald Trump and has traditionally been more corporate friendly than labor friendly during his tenure. Once Smith’s case reached the NLRB it was re-routed to the DC offices and got “deep sixed.” Based on our research this could possibly have been because of the relationship between Trump and his friend, and UFC President, Dana White.
This is where things could change in the pro wrestlers’ favor under the incoming Joe Biden – Kamala Harris administration. Peter Robb’s appointment as the head of the NLRB is set to run into 2021. However, there looks to be pressure on Biden to replace Robb much sooner than that. If enough authorization cards were collected to bring a case to the NLRB under a new head, it could be much more likely to see some action.
If enough authorization cards are collected and submitted to the NLRB, a company could argue the wrestlers are not entitled to unionize because they are “independent contractors” as opposed to “employees.” The burden of proving that the wrestlers were independent contractors would rest with the company and not the wrestlers seeking to unionize. Even if an employer labels someone as an independent contractor the board uses a multi-factor analysis to determine if they qualify as an employee of the company. Some of the points on the list include, the extent of control over the details, means and manner of the work; whether the work is done under the direction of the company, who supplies the tools and place of work, the method of payment, whether by the time or by the job, and the length of time the person is employed/contracted.
All of the pro wrestlers the NLRB view as qualifying for such a union would then be allowed to vote on if they wanted to elect the union for which authorization cards were filed. If fifty percent plus one of the wrestlers participating in the election vote “yes” then a formal union for pro wrestlers is formed. Under this method, depending on the structure of the union, pro wrestlers may get to elect leaders for the union, choose topics for a collective bargaining agreement with their employer and begin the process of collective bargaining. A union operates on membership dues paid by its members. The dues structure varies from union to union, but dues could be based on a percentage of income earned.
The second route we will look at is pro wrestlers joining an existing union, such as SAG-AFTRA. Pro wrestlers, especially those in WWE and AEW, would seem to qualify to be a part of the entertainment union. They perform in front of millions of people every week on major television platforms much like many of the other members of SAG-AFTRA. The reason that pro wrestlers are not already a part of the union has been a hot subject for decades.
On Monday morning Wrestling Inc. was sent a statement by SAG-AFTRA President Gabrielle Carteris where she stated, “SAG-AFTRA is committed to doing what we can to help professional wrestlers secure the protections they deserve.” Carteris also reached out directly to Zelina Vega on Twitter asking to speak directly about her interest in unionization. So, if both sides did want to work with one another, how would pro wrestlers go about formally joining SAG-AFTRA??
As an existing union SAG-AFTRA would still need to collect the same number of authorization cards to take to the NLRB on behalf of the pro wrestlers. Once those signatures are obtained by SAG-AFTRA they would likely first take those cards to the company to see if they would willingly acknowledge the union. If the company said “no” then SAG-AFTRA would take those authorization cards to the NLRB who would then look over the case.
If the NLRB sees merit in the case that SAG-AFTRA brings then the wrestlers can vote to have SAG-AFTRA serve as their representation. If the wrestlers all vote “yes” then SAG-AFTRA becomes the wrestlers representatives and take on the ability to do collective bargaining on their behalf. The benefit of that would be working with an existing entity who has experience in the field of negotiating on behalf of entertainers. The wrestlers would then pay dues directly to SAG-AFTRA.
This topic was discussed on today’s episode of our The Wrestling Inc. Daily podcast. You can listen to today’s episode, also featuring The Blue Meanie, via the embedded audio player below: