On a recent episode of The Wrestling Inc. Daily podcast, former UFC fighter and current Bellator fighter Leslie Smith sat down with Wrestling Inc. Managing Editor Nick Hausman to talk all things unions. The topic of WWE performers, and pro wrestlers in general, forming a union has become a hot issue since Wrestling Inc. exclusively reported on WWE's crackdown on their talents' endeavors in third-party ventures. Hausman asked Smith what the differences are between the pro wrestlers' fight for representation and the UFC fighters' fight for representation.
"There's a really big difference in that the pro wrestlers are getting a whole lot of support from other high-level wrestlers," Smith pointed out. "And so it's already taken hold in more of the movers and shakers who are going to be able to make a difference. And so that is super exciting."
Smith led a charge to create an association for MMA fighters through Project Spearhead. She explained on the podcast why UFC fighters are employees giving examples of characteristics that would make them employees.
"There's a list of characteristics of being an employee that a person looks at when they're determining whether or not a job is an employee type situation or an independent contractor situation, and you mentioned that they can't work elsewhere," Smith said. "Dana would probably say, 'Well, they can do anything else that they want. They just can't fight for another promotion.' Well, yeah, that's true, but if that's what they make their job, I mean, you can't take a shoemaker and tell a shoemaker that they can work wherever else they want to except in their industry. That's not giving them freedom.
"So that argument doesn't work there. They're not allowed to contract with other promotions to get to do their job, which is fighting, but then there's also smaller aspects of it. Like for example, the fact that when they actually do their job inside the cage, they are using the UFC's equipment. That's one of the characteristics. Also, that their actions are actually very highly controlled. From the time that they walk out into the cage, they're supervised. They're not doing their job unsupervised. That's one of the characteristics of an independent contractor.
"Also, the uniforms and that goes for pro wrestling as well. When people go out, I mean, they have personalized uniforms, but they have to wear what they have to wear. Same thing with the UFC fighters, definitely another characteristic of being an employee because it's the level of control that's being exerted over a person while they're working that really makes the difference."
Hausman then asked if Smith saw any similarities between WWE wrestlers and UFC fighters. She noted that UFC fighters have borrowed from pro wrestling in terms of the building up of personas, and the two groups both look for others ways to make money as they put their bodies on the line.
"Yeah, there's tons of similarities," Smith agreed. "You gotta have better acting skills, and I think you get a little bit more screen time, maybe, when you're doing pro wrestling, but yeah, I see so much of it as being similar. People are building up their personas. They're building up their general following on social media. They're looking for other ways to make money because it is a hustle, and they're putting their bodies on the line."
Through Project Spearhead, Smith offered fighters an opportunity to sign authorization cards under anonymity, and she talked about that process and how big her pool was. She also pointed out the lack of democracy in the workplace as well as the stark differences between UFC and Bellator when it comes to revenue sharing.
"Well, the bargaining unit that we were looking at was just a single employer group. We were only looking at the fighters of the UFC," Smith explained. "That kept the numbers down, and as far as numbers, that kept the numbers of how many people you would have had to get lower than if we had tried to go after Bellator fighters for a union as well, but Bellator's a little bit different in the way that they exert their control because in Bellator, you can have sponsors, you get to do your own clothing [and] sponsors however you want to. And they do do inter-promotional fights. They let people fight outside of Bellator.
"There's some differences, and then, there's also, I think that workers should have a say in their job at all times. This is a democracy, so why should we just stop being democratic the second that we walk to work? All of that ridiculousness that people make these big deals about 'we're a democratic nation, and we're wonderful and great.' Well, we need to be practicing our democratic muscles all the time and trying to have a say and participate and make decisions in the different environments that we're in. And we're at work more time than any of the rest of the time. Everybody should have an association or some kind of representation at work. It's a big deal, and so I definitely still think that's needed at Bellator. However, the offenses by the two different promoters are egregious in relation to each other.
"The UFC only pays about 18% of the revenue to the fighters, and that's the higher number in the estimate. And Bellator is paying about 50% of their revenue towards the athletes, and that's significant because in the other unionized sports, they're different. They're leagues. They're not as similar to the UFC and pro wrestling as pro wrestling and the UFC are to each other, but baseball, and basketball, and football and hockey, they all have unions, and that's about how much they get is about 50% of the revenue. So I think everyone needs it, but the UFC is definitely taking more of the money, and the pie is a lot bigger that the fighters should be getting to eat off of."
Smith is admittedly not that familiar about the world of pro wrestling, except for the fact that WWE Hall of Famer Mick Foley is the greatest. She admitted that she is not sure how beneficial it would be for wrestlers to form just a WWE union rather than a pro wrestlers union, and she talked about how her goal was "to get the largest group of fighters the most health insurance possible in the shortest time possible."
"I don't know how it is in pro wrestling if people train in large groups and if they feel an affinity towards their team, and so maybe if there's pro wrestling teams of people who train together that are part of a community, and they identify with each other, then maybe going across the different promotions would be a great thing," Smith said. "When I made the decision to only focus on the UFC fighters, my thought was that I just wanted to get a group. It was like a utilitarian decision.
"I wanted to get the largest group of fighters the most health insurance possible in the shortest time possible, and so the path that I saw for that, from what I knew about unionization -- there might be a certification process involved in getting a multi-employer bargaining unit. If you wanted to have the fighters from the different places, then it might be a slightly different process. I don't know, but I just knew that about the exact process to get the employees, independent contractors [and] the athletes from one promotion going. That was just the path that I saw."
Hausman then asked if a hypothetical UFC fighters union could fight for non-union outfits. Smith explained that her vision is for "an umbrella association" because if someone were part of a union, they would also be leaving the hypothetical UFC fighters union if they left the UFC.
"Well in that event, if somebody was part of a unionized workplace and then they left that workplace, then they would also be leaving the union," Smith noted. "My vision is that there should be an association that's like an umbrella association over all of it, and through that umbrella association, if there were opportunities for people to sign up for health care through that association, maybe they could pay a membership or something like that.
"It could, potentially, have as much power as a union, although it wouldn't necessarily have the same -- legally, they maybe wouldn't be able to organize in quite the same way."
Smith then explained the difference between a players association and a union. Smith explained that labor laws protect unions and force employers to collectively bargain with a union whereas an association is merely just a group of people.
"So here's the thing, a lot of people are really confused about the difference between union and association, and there has been so much negative, not necessarily propaganda, bad media because quite a bit of it has been true about unions being bad or being corrupt," Smith admitted. "There is a strong agenda for turning people negative towards unions, a corporate agenda. So they do feed into that, but the players association is a union. It's just called 'The Players Association.' So the word 'association' has the meaning of a grouping of people, and the union is a group of people who work together, usually for the same employer, who collectively bargain for rights inside of their workplace.
"So a union is an association, but an association is bigger than that. An association isn't necessarily a union. It's any grouping of people, but it could also do some of the things that a union does like get people together, and share opportunities and share information. And so legally, a union is a group of people at the employee, and they're recognized as a union at that workplace. And so the law protects them. The National Labor Relations Act, and there's a group, the National Labor Relations Board, they enforce these laws because for a while in all these factories in the early 1900s, people were in these horrible conditions in the factories. But the factory owners could just fire them or have them killed, and there'd be a big old revolt, but then the police would just come in. And they would protect the factory owners, but eventually, people just protested so much, and it was during the war. They needed people to just stay in line and keep working in the factories and the steel factories.
"So then labor law became a big thing where legally, the company has to, the company that is fighting against the union, they have to bargain with the union. They have to sit down at a table. They have to consider propositions. They have to really actually try to come to something, and so there isn't that legal forcing of the effort to reach a decision in an association. They don't have the same legal protections. If people are in a union and they go on strike and then the strike is over, the company has to bring those people back to their jobs because the law's protecting a union, but that's not there for an association."
Smith also explained that players associations seen in other sports like football and the basketball have to go through a union process. However, if pro wrestlers wanted to form an association, they can simply meet in an informal manner but also have people pay into it.
"Well, a players association, like baseball, or basketball or football, those are all union, so they'd have to go through the union process to get started," Smith explained. "But if it was just an association of pro wrestlers, well, then they could choose however. They could be just as informal. They could start meeting every Sunday to have beers and talk about things, or they could look to do other steps.
"They could look to actually make it a membership and have everybody pay into it, and they could look for things to purchase as a group like medical insurance opportunities"
You can follow Leslie on Twitter @LeslieSmith_GF. Leslie's full interview aired as part of a recent episode of our podcast, The Wrestling Inc. Daily. Subscribe to get the latest episodes as soon as it's released Monday - Friday afternoon by clicking here.