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With health concerns and economic issues widespread amongst the pro wrestling community, why have the workers failed to protect their own best interests by unionizing?
There used to be a time I was of the mindset that pro wrestling would undoubtedly unionize. Those that risked life and limb to entertain us in the squared circle would eventually enter the 21st century and join forces to protect themselves. Basic safety nets such as health insurance, pensions, and even travel costs would be put in place for everyone working in WWE, TNA, and other promotions, not just those who have established themselves as bona fide stars. For the longest time, it just seemed inevitable.
Now however, I'm 100% sure that will never happen.
Cageside's own Thomas Holzerman recently wrote a great piece on Impact's abuse of the term "Independent Contractor," wherein he is completely correct in his assessments. Afterall, the IRS states that:
"The general rule is that an individual is an independent contractor if the [employee] has the right to control or direct only the result of the work and not what will be done and how it will be done... [however] you are not an independent contractor if you perform services that can be controlled by an employer (what will be done and how it will be done). This applies even if you are given freedom of action. What matters is that the employer has the legal right to control the details of how the services are performed."
The principal behind independent contractors is that one gets to be "his own boss". A worker owns his talents, can control the hours he works, and is able to set the standard to which he is able to perform a job.
This is hardly the case in pro wrestling.
WWE explicitly states when and where a wrestler will perform, it prohibits a talent from appearing on competing programming, and, perhaps the biggest insult to the term, owns all the rights to the characters that appear on WWE.
For example, The Dudley Boyz, who had been using the name for years in ECW, were forced to become "Team 3D" when they left for TNA because WWE had acquired the trademark on "The Dudley Boyz". How one is supposed to have agency over his career at all when his very own name is taken away is beyond me.
In many ways the business is still clinging onto its carny days. Never mind that the curtain has been lifted and the world knows that everything is staged, kayfabe being virtually dead. Pay no mind to the fact pro wrestling has moved out of the big top and into football stadiums that can hold almost 80,000 people. No, it's politics as usual within the industry. The promoters control everything, and the talent is left to pick up the scraps.
Hell, without Ted Turner funneling nearly unlimited sums of money into the industry, I'm not too sure whether pro wrestlers would even have guaranteed contracts. Plus, without the federal government repeatedly investigating, WWE would have never had mandatory drug testing or paid for a wrestler's drug rehab.
It is clear that there is a vastly uneven bargaining power within all of pro wrestling. What should also be clear is the solution to many of the problems that plague the industry. When the bourgeoisie control the means of production (in this case airtime and all that is associated with producing a television show), it is up to the proletariat to unite and rise up as a united force. While traditional Marxist teachings speak of blood-filled revolution, our more civilized society uses unions as a peaceful outlet to even the balance of power. Those in the workforce negotiate with those who have capital, and each side collectively bargains for each other's resources. It sounds like a simple concept for all sides to benefit from.
Yet it has failed to achieve any traction within the industry for a simple reason; the workers will never unite.
Pro wrestling is less of an organized industry and more of a collection of companies that just so happen to produce the same form of entertainment. The complications of implementing unions increase exponentially as you try to figure out where union protections would start or end. Does a worker enter a union as they join the ranks of the elite WWE or TNA workers, or would it have to extend to the lowest promotions? Is it fair to make John Cena, a man who worked his ass off to achieve his level of success, give anything up to support those barnstorming in the local Veterans of Foreign War (VFW) halls?
On the other side of the coin, is it right to make someone earning a couple of bucks per appearance pay union dues to help those that have already achieved the highest level of success in their industry?
While these points are able to be seen and understood, they are incredibly selfish and shortsighted. It would be a great benefit to pro wrestling as a whole to make the job as appealing as possible. Health benefits and limitations on working hours would keep those in the business safer and able to work longer. The promotion taking care of training and travel expenses would lower the transaction costs for potential employees. A union would be able to organize training far more efficiently than what we have now; a haphazard collection of Indies run by shady promoters, each looking to screw the talent over just to make a quick buck.
Yes, there are certainly sacrifices that everyone would have to make. But I think it would benefit the entire industry were wrestlers to simply look out for one another.
Case in point, there are men and women who spend time and money going to school to become professional writers, yet here I am writing for pennies on the dollar; so I do see the hypocrisy of my attacks. In my circumstance, like other Cagesiders, I literally gave my work away to Cageside Seats in exchange for having it on their website, putting my name out there and gaining experience in the field for eight months before actually being officially hired or paid even a dime, and even now I'm not making anything close to a livable wage. I do this because I love it, of course, but is it fair of me to then turn around and weaken someone else's bargaining position?
On the other hand, Rick Reilly is reportedly earning $3 million dollars a year to rehash old articles, and Geno isn't trying to bash my head in with a steel chair (although sometimes I'm sure he wants to). In comparison to pro wrestlers, writers need far fewer protections in order to make a living.
The bottom line is this; I want what is best for pro wrestling. I want it to be as safe as possible so I can continue to enjoy a wrestlers work without worrying when his body will fall apart. I want to see those who risk life and limb be well compensated for entertaining me. I want what is best for the future of the industry, with potential talent not being turned off by crappy working conditions. While unionizing the industry wouldn't fix everything that is wrong, it certainly would be able to fix a lot of these things.
It's a damn shame that it will never happen though.