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World Wrestling Entertainment has long trampled on workers’ rights without anyone in the labor movement so much as lifting a finger in opposition. Their classification of workers as independent contractors isn’t new by any means, and neither is the lack of benefits for their performers, but WWE was basically left alone to do what they wished in this regard for decades. Now, though, they might have pushed too far, as the Screen Actors Guild is finally taking notice, and promising to begin protecting WWE’s independent contractors.
What brought on this sudden change in approach? That would be the firing of Zelina Vega, real name Thea Trinidad, for her refusal to hand over the keys to her Twitch account to WWE. Per a new edict from the world’s largest wrestling company, the third-party streaming accounts hosted by services like Twitch were actually under the jurisdiction of WWE: the plan, going forward, was to control those accounts, negotiate advertising partnerships themselves, and then divvy up the money generated by those platforms between WWE and the performers themselves. This is, in short, theft, as explained earlier this year:
Here’s the real kicker, per Wrestling Inc.: WWE is going to share the profits with wrestlers, but only sort of. The money shared with the wrestlers is going to count against the downside guarantee on their contract. Which is to say, WWE is stealing money from its performers who have off-the-clock third-party contracts that earn them additional income, by taking a cut of it for themselves and then using the part they “share” with the wrestler to avoid having to pay them more money out of their own corporate pockets.
The downside guarantee is what a wrestler is contractually obligated to earn regardless of how the contract plays out. If they don’t appear on television often enough, whether through injury or because the writers have nothing for them, they know they’ll be getting at least X dollars across Y years at minimum, and after that, WWE has no legal obligation to pay them further or give them more opportunities to be paid while the contract runs out. So, wrestlers making money on the side are now no longer technically making it on the side: WWE is baking it into the contracts they have with WWE, which will speed up the time it takes to hit their downside guarantee, which means WWE can consider their end of the bargain over sooner than usual, without having to pay all of what they themselves promised the wrestlers. And, on top of that, WWE somehow makes more money in the process, because they’ve cut in on what the wrestler was doing on their own time.
Vega refused to give up her Twitch account, believing that WWE didn’t have the rights to take it from her. She reportedly earned more from Twitch than she did from her actual contract with WWE, where she performed as both a manager and a wrestler, so between that and her publicly criticizing the new policy, it’s no surprise that she stood her ground in the end. Vega was fired for refusing to comply, and 10 minutes before WWE’s own social media accounts could share the news of her release, Vega tweeted out, “I support unionization.” While Vega was not fired for that tweet, and it will be difficult to prove with evidence rather than just obvious common sense that she was at least in part fired for harboring that sentiment, you know Vince McMahon doesn’t want anyone on his roster who might convince other wrestlers to unionize, either.
This led to Vega speaking with SAG-AFTRA’s president, Gabriella Carteris, who did not make it a secret that the two have spoken, either. Carteris released a statement to the media that said:
“Wrestling is as much 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.
As more people reinvest in unions, and as more working people are harassed by employers who don’t want to protect them, SAG-AFTRA is committed to doing what we can to help professional wrestlers secure the protections they deserve.”
And SAG-AFTRA’s Twitter also spoke of a “powerful conversation” with Vega, and their support for workers like her trying to protect themselves. WWE might have woken a sleeping giant by deciding to so openly steal from their independent contractors.
“Sleeping,” because SAG-AFTRA hasn’t helped in the past when they could have. It’s good they appear to be taking a stand now, but it’s vital to understand where they’ve been all this time. Back in the 1980s, Jesse Ventura — a former wrestler, announcer, actor, and yes, governor of Minnesota — wanted to unionize the then-WWF.. According to Bill Hanstock, in his recently published unauthorized WWE history, We Promised You A Great Main Event, Ventura gave an “impassioned speech to the WWF locker room” prior to WrestleMania II, when “all eyes would be on the company”:
He suggested the roster threaten to sit out the event unless they were able to negotiate a wrestlers’ union. The next evening, Ventura claims he received a phone call from a livid McMahon, who threatened to fire Ventura if he ever breathed another word about unionization. Ventura left to film Predator shortly thereafter, and proudly joined the Screen Actors Guild, receiving union benefits that precious few other workers have managed to obtain before or since.*
*In one of the ultimate examples of McMahon’s vision of sports entertainment allowing him to have his cake and eat it, too, WWE superstars are unable to join SAG or AFTRA based on their weekly TV appearances alone. SAG-AFTRA considers pro wrestlers to be athletes, not actors, and so to date no one has challenged this classification en masse. Over the years, many wrestlers have taken film and television acting roles in part to gain SAG benefits, but the bulk of the roster remains unable to join the actors’ union despite, you know, acting on television for several hours a week, fifty-two weeks a year.
Hulk Hogan, by the way, is the one who ratted Ventura out to McMahon. Just in case you somehow didn’t already think he was a scumbag.
Ventura’s plan to hold a major event hostage in order to gain recognition as a union recalls what the NBA’s players association pulled off prior to the 1964 All-Star Game, which was set to be the first to appear on national television. Thankfully for the NBPA, Hulk Hogan wasn’t around to screw that up, too.
So, SAG-AFTRA’s failure to recognize WWE’s wrestlers as actors plays a role in their lack of interest — Ed Asner, the SAG president of the time of Ventura’s unionization speech, believed that too few wrestlers would break kayfabe and admit they were actors instead of actual combatants — but as Jim Wilson explained in Chokehold, athlete unions like the NFLPA didn’t want to help them out, either. Wrestlers should be eligible for assistance from two different kinds of unions given their dual nature as both athletes and actors, and yet, they’ve ended up with support from no one. SAG-AFTRA changing course and considering wrestlers to be actors instead of athletes would be a major coup for the fight to unionize, and, unlike in Asner’s time, it is no longer some kind of industry secret to be protected by the wrestlers that wrestling is scripted and its performers actors.
There is still the classification issue to sort out, since independent contractors, by their very nature, lack the benefits that full employees receive, but it is also possible that Zelina Vega is sufficiently pissed off enough to file the suit that challenges that classification, with backing from SAG-AFTRA. And that might be necessary, since, like in Hogan’s time, there is no guarantee all of the wrestlers would be on board with unionizing. There are plenty of performers in Vince’s good graces who run out to the press or social media to explain that everything is great and those who think otherwise are just whiners or fans who don’t understand The Business. That would likely intensify with his chosen mouthpieces, should a union drive begin in earnest.
Most of the roadblocks that have been in place in the past have been lifted, though, or at least appear to be lifting, and that is major news that could keep another Vega situation from occurring. WWE, like corporations tend to do, has pushed just a little too far to get away with the grift anymore. It remains to be seen if WWE can sidestep this like they’ve sidestepped so many major controversies over the years, of course, but for the first time… ever? Labor might care about what’s going on in wrestling.