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WWE’s performers are in a tough spot, where they work for the largest wrestling promotion in the world and yet are signed as independent contractors, and without the protection of a union. This is how WWE can flex their muscle to bar their wrestlers from streaming on Twitch without sharing the profits with the promotion, or hold performers hostage when they are not being used for months and months at a time and want to leave the company because of it. These kinds of behaviors got the attention of SAG-AFTRA a couple of years ago, but nothing came of that, and WWE’s wrestlers, despite being both athletes and television performers, belong to a union for neither.
All Elite Wrestling (AEW) formed as competition for WWE, and while it has certainly done a good job of forcing WWE to treat some people better, or given independent performers an alternative place to seek the spotlight and get paid, they are also not unionized, despite hints that this, or some kind of wrestler-centric governing body, would be the direction things would go in from one of the founders, Cody Rhodes. (Rhodes retreated from that implication once he was settled into his executive position, and has since left AEW to rejoin WWE as a non-management performer.) While they do not put their performers through the incessant meat grinder of the WWE schedule, which features multiple multi-hour television shows per week along with untelevised “house” shows, they also aren’t paying most of their performers on par with what WWE provides, and they, too, can vanish from television for months at a time while remaining under contract. At least with AEW, though, these wrestlers can still perform elsewhere on the independent circuit, so they are not shoved in a closet somewhere and forgotten about.
Impact wrestling isn’t unionized, either, and Ring of Honor is now owned by Tony Khan, who also founded AEW, so that isn’t going to be unionized unless the same performers who are on AEW television want to make noise there instead. It turns out that we’re looking at a unionized wrestling promotion forming by 2024, however: Freddie Prinze Jr. — yes, that Freddie Prinze Jr. — announced that he’s putting together a promotion, one that will have Screen Actors Guild representation for its wrestlers from the outset.
Prinze Jr., being in Hollywood and on television for decades now, is certainly familiar with what unions can do for a performer. Hell, the kind of pay he has been able to receive in movies, on television, as a voice actor are all due to union protections, and it’s why he has enough in his bank account to buy a venue for this as of yet unnamed promotion outright. Prinze is also familiar with what not being unionized can mean for performers: he used to be a writer for WWE, you know, and had a front row seat to every aspect of the business because of it.
Obviously, this is just the announcement of a promotion, so we don’t have all of the details yet. However, Prinze Jr. stating that the show would have “equal time” for the men and women on the roster, which is something neither WWE nor AEW has bothered with, and that, combined with the declaration that its wrestlers would be in the Screen Actors Guild, are significant enough to warrant attention even this early on. Prinze Jr. plans to do live shows, which will be taped, and eventually get a television deal to broadcast those as well as new episodes. There is apparently enough money even without a TV contract to go for three years: obviously, some success and new funds rolling in would allow that time to be extended.
What would be huge, though, is that a wrestling company with a unionized roster would give these performers a taste of what their work life should be like. It would be yet another promotion for talented independent wrestlers to work for, which limits how many wrestlers WWE and AEW can just scoop up, and could convince promotions a tier below those two like Impact to unionize, with Impact not really being in a strong position to fight that sort of thing off without potentially hemorrhaging talent. Sure, Vince McMahon might just decide to figure out a way to kill Prinze Jr.’s promotion/Prinze Jr. in order to keep his performers from noticing what’s happening, but we’ve got an 18-month build-up before there actually even are any SAG-unionized performers wrestling. That’s a lot of time for today’s wrestlers to talk about how it might be a good idea to organize their own workplaces.
We’re a long way off from a major changing of the wrestling landscape, one that will feature organized rosters for multiple companies, and the kind of inter-league competition that exists within other sports and television productions. With Freddie Prinze Jr. throwing down the gauntlet here, though, announcing that his promotion will be unionized, well, we’re a much bigger step closer to that kind of future than we were at the start of the week.