Professional wrestling is one of the last of the unprotected industries in sports and entertainment. Many wrestlers have attempted to form a wrestling union but were met with failure. Some were blackballed completely.
The Aim To Bring in a Wrestling Union to Buckle The System
On November 13th, 2020, at 4:46 PM, Zelina Vega posted on her Twitter account, “I support unionization.” Soon later, WWE had released the popular and talented 29-year-old superstar who was already making a big splash in the company.
Most prominent industries in developed and some underdeveloped countries have unions that negotiate for their employees and balance management and worker power. Major sports around the world have players associations that also serve this purpose. Professional wrestling is one of the last of the unprotected industries in sports and entertainment not to unionize. Why?
In an industry that has notoriously always had tight control over its finances, information flow, production, and workers, these firings shouldn’t be a shock to anyone. Still, the waves the news caused may finally bring about the winds of change across the wrestling landscape.
Here, we look at instances when wrestlers tried to form a wrestling union in the past while ultimately failing in their pursuit.
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Not Allowing Third-Party Income Amid a Global Crisis
The standard contract for WWE wrestlers state:
The Contractor (the wrestler) acknowledges and agrees that during the Term, the Contractor shall be an independent contractor. Therefore, WWE shall have no responsibility to make any deductions or withholding from Contractor’s compensation, whether for federal, state, local, or any other taxes, unemployment compensation, insurance, social security, workers’ compensation, or any other assessments of contributions. Further, because Contractor is an independent contractor, Contractor acknowledges and agrees that WWE has no obligation to provide any medical, disability, workers’ compensation, or any other insurance or benefits generally offered to WWE employees.
WWE contracts also affirm that the wrestler is responsible for their costumes, makeup, wardrobe, props, transportation, food, and lodging.
The world of 2020 changed how people do business and brought on sweeping changes to how some wrestlers earned their income. Without live tours and fewer merchandise sales, many performers were without that source of income and working, if lucky, once or twice a week. Many wrestlers started streaming on third-party platforms like Twitch to combat the loss of income, where fans can subscribe to watch them play video games or engage with their audience. Many of these accounts have been extremely successful, particularly for talents such as Zelina Vega and Paige.
In late October 2020, Marc Middleton of Wrestling Inc reported that the WWE would shut down third-party platforms like Twitch and Cameo from their performers. Zelina Vega, along with AJ Styles, Reckoning (Mia Yim), Aleister Black (Zelina Vega’s husband), and Cesaro, commented on their channels’ status while streaming with fans. The move drew criticism in what seemed like a power move to take over every single source of revenue from their superstars — wrestlers who work under the labor classification of “independent contractors” and not employees.
Before the issue of this edict, several of the stars met with WWE Chairman and CEO Vince McMahon to argue against the banning of social media accounts that earned them extra income outside of WWE. But everything indicates that they failed to persuade WWE management not to suspend their accounts. The timeframe passed, and Zelina Vega kept her Twitch account. When she followed this by also opening up an OnlyFans account, it was the straw that broke the camel’s back. Her contract with WWE was terminated.
Fans and insiders wonder if she was made an example of by WWE.
The Case of Zelina Vega
In a Twitch stream that went live a few hours after her release from WWE, a distraught Zelina Vega said, “I’m sad and completely heartbroken. Obviously, this isn’t the last that you’re going to see of me. I don’t know what the future’s going to hold. I don’t know what’s going to happen. I love you all, though, and I’m really thankful to each and every single one of you. If I go down as someone who stood up for themselves, so be it. But I’m so thankful. I’m not angry. I’m just heartbroken ’cause being a wrestler is all I ever wanted to do.”
Despite this heartbreaking scenario for Vega, there is a silver lining and strong reasoning behind her not wanting to remove her Twitch account per WWE’s requests. According to a report by Dave Meltzer on Wrestling Observer Radio, Vega made more money on Twitch than she was with the WWE considering the constraints brought upon in 2020.
As for WWE, they have a plan in place to earn a cut from their independent contractors’ outside income. Sources at Twitch have confirmed that there are plans for a WWE Twitch channel by the end of the year or maybe even sooner. And they don’t want anybody or anything to compete with their strategy once launched.
Editor’s update: On July 2nd, 2021, after eight months away from WWE, Zelina Vega made her return to WWE, explaining she had some “unfinished business.”
Paige Speaks Out
Of the affected WWE talent, Paige, who hasn’t been on WWE television for over a year, is the only other WWE Superstar that hasn’t relinquished her Twitch account. Her words about the situation were very poignant, and many believe that letting her go as well would become a WWE public relations nightmare.
“I’ve honestly gotten to the point where I cannot deal with this company any more,” said a frustrated Paige. “Now I have to make a very important decision. I’m fucking tired, man. I broke my fucking neck twice, twice for this company. Over fucking worked. I can’t wrestle anymore because my neck is fucked. My whole dreams got taken away.”
Paige continued, “I had to have something that fulfilled that huge fucking void that I lost with wrestling. I couldn’t wrestle anymore, something I lived and breathed since I was a fetus, and it got ripped away from me. I had to find something that could fill a little bit of that, and Twitch was a wonderful thing for me. I’m in my house going fucking crazy, and I need something to keep me sane. People think I should be thankful that I still got a job, and I am, but it doesn’t mean that I should be treated like fucking shit.”
The Difference Between “Independent Contractor” and “Employee”
One of the main differences between an “employee” and an “independent contractor” is control, and misclassification can result in penalties and amounts owed to employees. There is no conclusive test to determine if an individual is an employee or an independent contractor, so several considerations are weighed.
In general terms, the advantages of having independent contractors instead of employees are cost, flexibility, and compliance ease. Independent contractors do not have employee benefits, including insurance, pensions, and paid time off. In general terms, employers can lay off independent contractors more easily, making it less complicated to scale up or downsize. Generally, businesses have fewer legal and compliance obligations toward independent contractors compared to employees.
Many wrestlers now more than ever feel deprived of the benefits that they are entitled to. Over the years, some wrestlers tried to narrow this inequality gap and searched for a more favorable bargaining position. Unfortunately, the worker usually came out on the losing end.
Andrew Yang and His Hopes to Become a Champion of Change for Wrestlers
One of the more prominent names recently to speak out against this action is former Democratic Presidential candidate Andrew Yang, a man who the Obama administration named a “Champion of Change.” He had some strong words to share about the situation.
“A lot of it is that wrestlers are afraid to speak out. I’ve had wrestlers past and present reach out to me and say that Vince [McMahon] has been getting away with the exploitation of wrestlers, calling them independent contractors while controlling their activities for years and years,” Yang said. “A lot of it is just that they are a quasi-monopoly, and wrestlers fear that if they do try and unionize or organize in any way that Vince doesn’t like, that it will never work again.”
SAG-AFTRA President Gabrielle Carteris Gets Involved
Gabrielle Carteris is an American actress and trade union leader. You may remember her role as Andrea Zuckerman in the early seasons of the 1990s television series Beverly Hills, 90210. She is now president of SAG-AFTRA (Screen Actors Guild- American Federation of Television and Radio Artists), representing approximately 160,000 film and television actors, singers, radio personalities, and many other related entertainment professions.
Gabrielle recently stated, “Wrestling is as much about media as it is sports, and we are going to directly engage with members of this profession to help find ways for them to protect themselves.”
On November 18th, 2020, the process moved forward after the Twitter account for SAG-AFTRA tweeted, “Powerful conversation with Thea Trinidad @Zelina_VegaWWE today. We support her and others as they work to protect and empower themselves.”
Throughout the years, top wrestlers have notoriously not been sympathetic to unionization because, quite frankly, they have little need for improving working conditions. A 2018 report showed several WWE wrestlers earning $4.5 to $10 million a year as a base salary before merchandise sales and bonuses.
Profit-sharing, paid sick leave, health insurance, paid travel expenses, and seeking out other income sources like Twitch, Cameo and OnlyFans seem much more attractive if you’re earning less than $550,000. All of the WWE contracts for their women performers fell under that amount according to the 2018 report, except for Ronda Rousey, who made $1.5 million.
Earning figures improved for one particular star in 2019. According to a report by David Bixenspan, Becky Lynch was revealed as the highest-paid female on the WWE roster making $3.1 million.
Dave Meltzer also revealed that there are two contract tiers on the main roster at the moment, with wrestlers who signed after the formation of AEW making more money than the ones who were already there. Zelina Vega was on an older contract. Therefore, she wasn’t earning the lucrative payday as some of her peers who had recently renegotiated contracts in WWE’s bid to stop wrestlers from jumping ship to AEW.
It is important to note that these are pre-pandemic salaries, and 2020 saw earnings take a substantial dip, especially with live shows not taking place and earnings not going to the performers from these shows.
Failed Attempts To Form a Wrestling Union In The Past and the Blackballing That Followed
Historically, promoters blackballed wrestlers who would get out of line or were deemed difficult to work with, especially if they didn’t draw money. Wrestlers and promoters are not on equal footing. Therefore unionization may provide a necessary mechanism to balance the power between the wrestlers and management.
“Big” Jim Wilson, who had limited success during his short career in the late ’70s and early ’80s and mainly in Georgia, was one of the first documented cases of a wrestler trying to help form a labor union. Wilson claims the NWA blackballed him and his career came to a halt when he refused the sexual advances of promoter Jim Barnett.
Once blackballed and unable to work for the NWA, he headed an “outlaw” company that had some shows in Georgia with minimal success.
Practically unable to operate in a state where the NWA already had a strong presence, backing, and paid loyalty from most politicians and venue administrators, Jim Wilson filed an antitrust case in 1980 against the NWA. He claimed they monopolized wrestling by organizing to protect its members against any competition by dividing and allocating wrestling territories among its members.
Wilson also stated that the NWA stifled competition by refusing to deal and exclusive leases on wrestling facilities. He proclaimed the NWA “wilfully and maliciously entered into a scheme to deprive Plaintiff of his livelihood as a professional wrestler by utilizing their superior economic position to destroy the effectiveness of Plaintiff’s international league…”
In a book Wilson co-authored with Weldon T. Johnson entitled Chokehold: Pro Wrestling’s Real Mayhem Outside the Ring, he revealed many of the injustices he claims to have suffered, the antitrust lawsuit, and the unequal bargaining power wrestlers had with promoters.
You can also read more about how a rival upstart “outlaw” promotion went against the NWA in our article entitled Battle for Atlanta – How The NWA Crushed Ann Gunkel’s Outlaw Promotion.
Jim Wilson wasn’t the only wrestler blackballed from a company after refusing the sexual advances from somebody in the business. Barry Orton (who wrestled as Barry O), brother of Bob Orton Jr., and uncle to WWE superstar Randy Orton, was blackballed after allegedly refusing sexual advances from wrestler Terry Garvin.
Other examples of blackballing include:
- “The Magnificent Zulu” Ron Pope for joining the NAACP’s suit charging discrimination against black wrestlers in California.
- “The Continental Lover” Eddy Mansfield for protesting his payment for a match, although most believe it was for exposing the business on the infamous 20/20 wrestling exposé hosted by John Stossel in 1984 where Mansfield bladed himself (blading is a term used in wrestling describing when wrestlers cut themselves to bleed during matches). Instantly, he became despised by his peers.
- Sixty mostly under-acknowledged former wrestlers who worked for WWF/WWE and filed the WWE Concussion Lawsuit. The majority of the wrestlers on that list will never be inducted into the WWE Hall of Fame as a result.
- When the WWE (then WWF) began emerging as a genuine national promotion, sometimes paying up to $100,000 for local stations to broadcast their events, Sgt. Slaughter tried to unionize or at least pushed for better working conditions for “the boys” before departing from the WWF in 1984. At the time of his departure, Slaughter was easily the second biggest “face” in the company. He would return to the WWF in 1990 after a five-year stint in the AWA.
- Many promoters avoided hiring Claude “Thunderbolt” Patterson and “Jumping” Jim Brunzell because of purportedly trying to organize a union. According to an interview with Buddy Colt in The Wrestling Archive Project: Volume 1 by Scott Teal, Vince McMahon Sr. let “Killer” Buddy Austin go after “he started going around talking to the guys, trying to get them involved in a union.”
Jesse The Body Ventura Versus The WWE
One of the more well-known cases of wrestlers attempting to unionize was when Jesse Ventura tried to organize “the boys” before WrestleMania II in 1986. Ventura later described what happened on the Steve Austin Show.
“Two weeks before the show, all the publicity had gone out [for WrestleMania II], and the advantage was ours. I stood, and I waited until there weren’t any agents around. I stood up in the dressing room and gave a speech to the boys, and this was at the time when we were still battling Charlotte [Jim Crockett Promotions based out of North Carolina].”
Ventura said to the locker room, “[We stand a chance] if we go together and simply tell the media we are not wrestling unless union negotiators by federal law can come in and give us the opportunity to unionize.”
He then said, “The people that turn on the lights in this building are union. They have to do it by law. It’s in our favor. Then, if we engage the Charlotte guys to do the same thing, we can have a union in wrestling.”
Ventura gave this big speech and then went home. The following night, he received a phone call from Vince McMahon.
“[He] basically threatened to fire me if I ever brought it up again. He read me the riot act.”
Jesse Ventura left after WrestleMania II and was soon later cast for the movies Predator and The Running Man, both released in 1987 and starring Arnold Schwarzenegger. He now receives retirement and healthcare benefits from SAG-AFTRA.
When returning to the WWF after the filming of both movies, he claimed that he told Vince McMahon that he wouldn’t bring up forming a wrestling union again and wasn’t willing to help people “too stupid to fight for their rights.”
The sad truth was that he found it difficult to find wrestlers who wanted to join him in the good fight.
Forming a union is just not that simple.
How to Form a Wrestling Union
In an email sent by someone claiming membership in SAG-AFTRA to Wrestler Observer Live, we learned what steps were needed for wrestlers to form a wrestling union.
“There’s been talk about wanting to reach out to WWE for some time. I know for a fact that there’s been an interest in talent for years. But the message until now, and perhaps still, is that they won’t organize because of Vince [McMahon], but that may be changing.”
The anonymous SAG-AFTRA board member continued, “The first step would be for the talent to file a petition with the National Labor Relations Board. I believe they would need one-third of the talent to say that they are interested in unionizing. Then a formal vote would occur of all eligible talent as to whether they would want to unionize. A simple majority yes (more than 50%) vote would be required to pass. By law, it is illegal for a company to retaliate against any employee interested in forming a wrestling union. This, however, is hard to prove if it is just one person. That’s why multiple talents will need to step up at the same time, which creates a strong case of retaliation.”
He further explained that details on third-party income from social media would be hammered out in a collective bargaining agreement unique to WWE when both representative parties sit down to negotiate. Once a wrestling union has been created, the collective bargaining agreement (CBA) would be the place to address many other issues. These include base pay, an established daily pay for extras and enhancement talent, travel expenses, and time off. Maternal, paternal, and regular sick days are also up for negotiation. He also mentions insurance, pensions, and 401Ks. The latter is something the talent pays into to have available when they retire, comparable to pro leagues such as the NFL.
“All this is give and take,” he adds. “Neither side will get 100% of what they want, but talent will absolutely walk away with a lot more than they have now; a hell of a lot more.”
Some contracts already include certain benefits, but this often depends on the talent’s adeptness to negotiate. But it is not equal across the board, and many workers are left in a financially more vulnerable situation, leaving themselves legally unprotected.
The WWE does offer a WWE Legends Contract for some veteran stars. It pays a $10,000 advance for future royalties and a minimum of $500 for each appearance the star makes. Top legends like Ric Flair and Hulk Hogan make more per appearance.
It is a fairly common practice for some wrestlers to “hold up” a promoter for more money or refuse to go out to the ring seconds before their match. One such example of this was when Jeff Jarrett held the Intercontinental Championship “hostage” from Vince McMahon before his match against Chyna at No Way Out 1999.
There are certainly instances throughout the years where a promoter would make far more than any of the wrestlers, so a top wrestler, at the end of their contract period, could hold up the show and refuse to go on until a new contract is negotiated to include a pay increase to match the audience’s size.
Is “holding up” the promoter one of the few recourses wrestlers have against exploitive promoters who often forced them to wrestle in poor conditions or even injured?
Hulk Hogan Puts a Halt to Wrestling Union Rallying Cries in the ’80s
In episode 369 of The Steve Austin Show, Ventura stated that the WWF fired him because he refused to sell his copyright likeness to them.
“I own Jesse’ The Body’ Ventura. I own the copyright of it, and I refused to let him have it without him giving me some type of royalties for it. And I had a video game, at the time, that was interested in using me, and Vince wouldn’t let me do it. That’s when I quit and left him because I said, ‘Vince, you don’t own me. I own me. I was Jesse’ The Body’ before I ever came here [to WWE].’ He couldn’t allow anyone out of the circle.”
In 1991, Ventura sued WWE’s then-parent company, Titan Sports, Inc., when the former WWE commentator learned that WWE officials lied about performers receiving royalties on videotape sales. “The Body” prevailed, winning more than $800,000 in the judgment.
The proceedings revealed that Hulk Hogan ran to Vince to rat out Ventura and his plan to convince his fellow cohorts to form a wrestling union in the mid-’80s. It is difficult to find a more blatant example of a top star protecting his status as a top star by sabotaging collective action as what the Hulkster did. Hulk Hogan was making much more than any other talent on WWF cards, and in 1986, he was reported to have earned $2.5 million.
In an interview with Howard Stern in 2012, Ventura questioned WWE’s classification of their workers as independent contractors and posed the question, “How are they independent contractors when they’re signed exclusively? You can’t work for anybody else, and they tell you when and where you’ll work. They can totally control your life, and yet they’ll call you an independent contractor.”
He added, “It’s so they don’t have to pay social security, and the wrestler has to pay 15 percent self-employment tax.”
Pro Wrestling Labor Issues Are a Historical Problem
If Zelina Vega is to return to wrestling, it will be in mid-February 2021, pandemic restrictions permitting, because of a 90-day-non-compete clause all WWE Superstars agree to when signing with the company.
One exception to the rule is Senior Vice President and Executive Director of Smackdown and Raw Bruce Prichard.
He’s been employed by WWE since August 2020 but can continue his podcast Something To Wrestle With Bruce Prichard, which he co-hosts with Conrad Thompson. The company allows his continued involvement in the podcast, providing he doesn’t speak about the current WWE product.
Wrestling historian and author David Shoemaker goes on to give his opinion that wrestlers’ contracts are this way “for historical reasons.”
In the territories’ era, wrestlers operated more like independent contractors, but the WWF/WWE absorbed that concept when it became a national company and no longer just regional.
In 2008 Raven, Chris Kanyon, and Mike Sanders sued WWE, claiming they “cheating them out of health care and other benefits.” They also insisted that the “independent contractor” designation was a facade because WWE had “virtually complete dominion and control over its wrestlers.” A federal judge threw out the case supposedly because the statute of limitations had expired.
The Wrestler director Darren Aronofsky spoke at length about pro wrestling’s labor issues in David Shoemaker’s book, The Squared Circle: Life, Death, and Professional Wrestling.
“The problem starts with that they’re not organized, and they’re not unionized,” he said. “There’s no reason why these guys are not in SAG. They’re as much screen actors as stuntmen, if not more. They’re in front of a camera performing and doing stunts, and they should have that protection. Or for the ones not on TV, the ring is a theater. So they’re not just screen actors; they’re theater actors. They’re performers. They should have health insurance, and they should be protected.
When John Cena appeared on Larry King Live in 2007, King asked if he thought there needed to be a wrestling union. Unsurprisingly, Cena, who was already one of the wealthiest wrestlers on the planet, answered, “I believe professional wrestlers, WWE-specific and across, they all know what they’re getting into. Nobody is forcing them to get into the ring. It’s a job that they all want to do.”
Hope For The Future (Or Not?)
We must not forget that even though WWE calls it sports entertainment, the essence of professional wrestling has changed very little.
Most wrestlers have proven themselves to be mercenaries looking for the best pay and best spot in the roster. In turn, promoters use this to their advantage against the performers. A wrestler selling another one out is still rather typical. Unlike combat sports, the wrestler’s ability to sell tickets determines his place on the card, not his win-loss record.
Drawing power is abstract and difficult to measure, particularly in mid-tier talent, which gives promoters many leeways to make or break a career by merely not booking him for any reason at all.
An injury, a family emergency, illness, or upsetting the promoter can be very costly. Thus, wrestlers often work injured or turn to drugs or alcohol to manage the pain and battle to keep their top spot. A wave of this behavior in the ’80s and ’90s led to many early wrestler deaths later.
Wrestlers, for the most part, now live a different lifestyle and earn much more compared to the territory days. Mostly gone are the formidable bar patrons with beer bellies and bad attitudes always looking for a fight to prove their manliness. Nowadays, many wrestlers are clean-looking premier athletes who prefer to play video games and have multi-year-long contracts. Several stars (but not most) even net millions of dollars a year.
In a way, WWE performers are no different than any of the athletes we see in the NBA, MLB, or NFL, but wrestling’s carnie ethos and exploitative management practices are ever-present. WWE has a constantly touring live show — when there isn’t a worldwide crisis — and a wrestler’s life is akin to rock band members that travel more than 300 days a year while abusing their bodies. Although for WWE, this soon may change with regular house show touring appearing to be over. Now that the McMahon family ally Donald Trump will become a former president, how will this affect WWE’s talent classification?
Among all these factors is the glimmer of hope of forming a wrestling union, which may bring needed balance in the industry. Wrestling needs more selfless people.
Is there a chance of hope and unity for the wrestlers? Only time will tell.
These stories may also interest you:
- Jesse Ventura – How He Sued Vince McMahon, and Won
- Wrestling and Politics | 7 Wrestlers Who Ran For Office
- Vince McMahon – 3 Times He Intimidated Wrestlers in WWE
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