Professional wrestlers do not have a union
One major argument about the misunderstood medium of professional wrestling is that this widespread lack of understanding itself pushes its industry into dark corners, which is where exploitation always thrives. Yes: for those who graft away as pro wrestlers, the common refusal to take their work seriously leaves them vulnerable to abuses.
This is why the Left Fist was created to utilise written word and podcasting in order to offer proper scrutiny from a progressive perspective, while provoking discussion and debate around how pro wrestlers can be treated better, with respect for what they do. But, you may ask, what is it they do?
“So, what is it you do?”
In the book Chokehold: Pro Wrestling’s Real Mayhem Outside the Ring, former wrestler Jim Wilson cited that at the heart of both pro wrestling’s appeal and its dismissal was “its odd combination of sport and theater into something that is neither, something that doesn’t fit a conventional category.”
Dr Claire Warden is a Professor of Performance and Physical Culture, the co-editor of Performance and Professional Wrestling and the academic lead/commissioner for the on going Wrestling Resurgence project which aims to explore wrestling as an artistic practice through live wrestling shows. As part of her work, defining pro wrestling itself has been a key challenge.
Dr Warden has suggested that pro wrestling “is a liminal form that sits right on the intersection between sport and art,” elaborating that “it cannot be fully understood as a sport (despite its appearance on Sky Sports and BT Sport in the UK, its physicality, and its use of sporting tropes – rules, referees, the ring etc) or theatre (despite its characterisation, storylines, and spectacle).”
“Beyond arguments about what pro wrestling is or is not, and away from popular dismissal of wrestling’s stunts and gimmicks as lowlifer sleaze, is another unexamined reality. And that is the view of the pro wrestling business from within,” Jim Wilson had stated. “It’s tough to find an audience for a serious discussion…about a topic generally dismissed as not to be taken seriously.”
Kicking ass for the working class
This lack of definition and broader comprehension of pro wrestling itself, then, has permitted a plethora of problems to occur, including lack of funding and regulation. Explained Dr Warden: “This is exacerbated by the negative connotations of wrestling: that it is ‘less than’ sport, that it is fake, that it is popular (even, ‘working class’) and therefore not ‘real art’, that it is somehow not tasteful. All of this emanates from this initial question about whether wrestling is sport or theatre.”
When establishment media has on occasion covered pro wrestling, the ignorance of those reporting on it were usually wide of the mark – such as, in the wake of the sex and drug scandals just over a decade before, the initial news stories oversimplifying the Chris Benoit double murder suicide as “’roid rage” when in fact brain trauma from dangerous moves performed in the ring played a significant part in the tragedy. “Chris Benoit’s suicide will forever be inextricably linked to CTE [Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy],” said Dr Dominic Malcolm, an expert on the concussion crisis in sports: “As ever with wrestling, much depends on how you view it – is it sport or a dramatic performance? In my mind, it is probably both (or neither). But this ambiguity has meant that the concussion crisis is experienced in peculiar ways in wrestling.”
So is it sport or art? Or simply “sport-art?”
The issue, fundamentally, is a lack of protections for pro wrestlers themselves, in an industry spawned from carnies of old, many supposed “superstars” treated much like circus animals – and the lack of broad understanding of the business in many ways permits promoters to act under the radar, without proper scrutiny as opposed to mere sensationalist stories once every few years. That pro wrestling has gone this long subjected to the whims of the capitalists in charge of the business, while so many similar industries are more respected, regulated, and unionised, is essentially an ongoing scandal. But, because it sits somewhere between sport and art, it’s also complicated — as pro wrestlers themselves will tell you.
Despite the fact that, in the 1980s, the World Wrestling Federation’s Vince McMahon testified before the New Jersey State Senate that pro wrestling was in fact predetermined performance, in an attempt to avoid regulations, this “sport-art” is nonetheless still sometimes regulated by State Athletic Commissions, which some pro wrestlers like Jim Wilson actually fought for in hopes it might lead to better protection for performers (leading to him being blackballed by promoters). Ironically, around the same time as McMahon’s testimony, his commentary colleague on his televised WWF shows, ex-wrestler Jesse “The Body” Ventura, was enjoying a run in Hollywood blockbuster movies like Predator and The Running Man, where he was registered to the Screen Actors Guild and helped pro wrestlers organise in attempts apparently largely scuppered by both top star Hulk Hogan and, no doubt, McMahon himself: a longtime ally of Donald Trump, Saudi Arabia apologist, and pro wrestling monopolist who ran roughshod over territories to dominate pro wrestling by the turn of the century, controlling and exploiting wrestlers along the way via his WWF (later WWE).
“Trade union membership rates in the UK’s major sports exceeds 90%,” said Dr Malcolm, “but wrestling is traditionally non-unionised; only recently has the actors’ union Equity begun to represent wrestlers. (What makes this particularly ironic is that dramatic performance is also highly unionised, with Equity operating one of the last ‘closed shops’ in the UK until outlawed in 1990). Finally, there is no singular governing body for wrestling or what organisational theorists call a dominant self-regulator.”
There has been little hope or vision for many years, up until recently with, on one hand, the All In event and, on the other, the Speaking Out movement – here in the UK, an All-Party Parliamentary Group was launched to form an inquiry as a result of the revelations that came from Speaking Out, concluding that “in the absence of a recognised union, wrestlers could organise and take direct action – but given almost all are self-employed independent contractors, in different places and at different times, such organising is not realistic.” It continued: “One over-arching body is therefore needed, but the mobilisation required is an incredible challenge, given the lack of stability in work and fear of promoters blackballing.” Despite the obvious limitations presented by hierarchical parliamentary politics, the APPG in the UK remains significant, because it recommends specific sets of standards and pro wrestling companies adhering to these standards, therefore offering more opportunities for organising here in the UK.
As a result, recently the pro wrestling industry has enjoyed a positive shift – an expansion of awareness and associated safe spaces, and an increasingly diverse following befitting this unique exhibition where disbelief can be suspended and any performers can be seen to do battle, regardless of size or shape, gender or background; from post-modern performances and cinematic wrestling to deathmatches and technical masterpieces — understanding and appreciation of pro wrestling in all its forms has never been greater, which can only bode well for meeting fans’ expectations and demands.
Reflecting this diversity, the most marginalised groups must surely be at the forefront of the movement to unionise pro wrestling, rather than waiting for individual characters lacking in integrity much less intersectional anti-capitalist politics of any kind. It’s become important to try and sift through the populist rhetoric and demand actual change.
Fertile ground for alternatives
Sure enough, the sickly-sweet, PG-rated corporate monopoly of the profits-and-layoffs WWE actually inadvertently created fertile ground for more alternatives, with “Elite” second-generation star Cody Rhodes calling for wrestlers to “band together”, and the wrestler-led event All In becoming an incredible success and leading to the formation of All Elite Wrestling, a company that can only exist on a scale remotely comparable to WWE because of its wealthy owner Tony Khan, arguably the first major pro wrestling promoter to proclaim to be open to unionisation.
But it’s yet to happen.
How it happens isn’t really up to us, but the pro wrestlers themselves – rather, our role is to share their stories, and support their efforts to be valued and protected as performers of this wonderful “sport-art.” We cannot wait for wrestlers-turned-management, and we cannot wait for the promoters of major companies; there’s a whole industry out there. From Pro Wrestling: EVE and Riptide to F1rst Wrestling and Enjoy Wrestling, and the very promising Industrial World Wrestling, there are numerous progressive, forward-thinking independent movements, demonstrating that there is an outstanding demand for such alternatives – and fertile ground for changes from the ground upwards. 🤜