WWE policy change reopens question of independent contractor status

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The wrestlers of World Wrestling Entertainment perform exclusively for WWE. They travel across America, Canada, and overseas to perform live television shows multiple times per week, and have a touring brand for “house” shows, non-televised performances, as well. They do this 52 weeks per year, they do not get an offseason, and the physical toll on their bodies is obvious in a way it isn’t for most other non-football sports.

And yet, WWE’s wrestlers are not full-time employees. They’re independent contractors, without access to benefits or health insurance. They are responsible for arranging and paying for their own rental cars. They don’t, except in rare circumstances, receive a meaningful cut (or any cut) of merchandising revenue that their own performances drive the sales of. They are entirely at the whims of a 75-year-old egomaniac who equates WWE with wrestling itself and vice versa, and himself with both of those things as well. Saying no or making a fuss about anything could lead to being taken off of television, being let go, or having to spend months being publicly humiliated on camera.

So, when news dropped last week that WWE was forcing its Not Employees to adhere to a new policy on which “third-party” services they could appear on — think Twitch, Cameo, etc. — there was understandably an uproar. Who was WWE to tell independent contractors what they could do when they weren’t on the clock, when WWE isn’t even handling their health insurance?

This isn’t a defense of WWE by any means, but the initial belief was that the company was barring its employees from even using those services their real names rather than just their WWE monikers. That’s since been refuted, but it’s still an example of how tightly controlled WWE can be about what their performers say and do. They released a statement defending the new policy, and it has some fun word choices in there:

Much like Disney and Warner Bros., WWE creates, promotes and invests in its intellectual property, i.e. the stage names of performers like The Fiend Bray Wyatt, Roman Reigns, Big E and Braun Strowman. It is the control and exploitation of these characters that allows WWE to drive revenue, which in turn enables the company to compensate performers at the highest levels in the sports entertainment industry. Notwithstanding the contractual language, it is imperative for the success of our company to protect our greatest assets and establish partnerships with third parties on a companywide basis, rather than at the individual level, which as a result will provide more value for all involved.

WWE, to its credit, does pay more than anyone else in the industry. However, WWE also makes far, far more than anyone else in the industry, and the wrestlers aren’t necessarily paid in line with the kind of revenue their existence creates. Again, they don’t even receive health insurance from WWE! You’ve even got WWE Hall of Famers like Kevin Nash pointing out the issue on Twitter:

This idea that partnering with WWE for every possible dollar the wrestlers can make outside of their time on the clock will benefit “all involved” instead of just allowing WWE to get their hands on money the wrestlers are making on their own is laughable. That’s not what Nash means when he says “profit sharing.”  “Control and exploitation” indeed.

WWE’s performers, despite being both athletes and television performers, are not unionized. All Elite Wrestling, a network television competitor, gives its wrestlers more freedom to perform outside of the company but pays less, so WWE isn’t being pressured to restructure their deals or employment classifications just yet. If anything, they’re attempting to exert additional control over them. There is this Twitch etc. policy, but there was also the fact WWE’s wrestlers didn’t really have a say about whether or not they would perform during a pandemic. Vince McMahon told them TV was ongoing, and while wrestlers had the option to stay at home, supposedly without having to fear retribution for doing so, there was little reason to believe that was true unless you were the kind of star McMahon would try to cater to for fear of losing them.

It’s going to take organizing to change things for WWE’s independent contractors. WWE can’t fire everyone, not when they have three separate full-time shows to fill in America alone and plans to expand beyond their current international presence, not when AEW is sitting there as an employment alternative… not when these independent contractors can go on Twitch or YouTube or whatever using their real names and start talking about why they were fired or taken off of television. Otherwise, it’s going to remain the way it is, with Vince’s word being gospel until the day he dies, and one of his children taking over after learning for decades that this is how the industry and this company works. Which is to say, nothing will change.

If WWE’s performers want change, they’re going to have to bring it about. They can’t necessarily rely on challenging the independent contractor status in court, as WWE has a history of getting away with both literal and figurative murder in that space, but organizing in order to bargain is an option. Hook up with the Screen Actors Guild. Look to professional sport spaces for knowledge on how to form your own union that works just for your industry. It’s beyond time to do something, as WWE enters its fifth decade of total control under Vince.

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