On Monday, one of the biggest non-WWE stars in pro wrestling—if not the biggest—tweeted something that could, if you squinted and tilted and hoped a little bit, be read as a call to arms.
Context, as always, is useful, here. That thought from Cody Rhodes was widely read as both a repudiation of the increasingly inexcusable WWE/Saudi Arabia deal and a call for a union or wrestlers’ association of some kind. Rhodes, for his part, has not elaborated on its meaning and uncharacteristically declined a request to do so on the record. It makes sense that, among others, the fans in the top replies read it that way, though. That’sbbecause of the work that Rhodes has already done to push a different vision of how pro wrestling might work.
Rhodes was one of the three wrestlers behind All In, a self-produced and purportedly self-funded pay-per-view supershow that delighted a sold-out crowd of over 11,000 fans last month at the Sears Centre in Chicago suburbs. Though there has been some rightful quibbling about just how much that could be considered an independently produced show—Rhodes himself has admitted that there was some institutional support, at least for technical production and arena booking, from Sinclair Broadcast Group’s ROH, who has a U.S.-exclusive on the key wrestlers involved—it was still a massive show of power from Cody and co-promoters The Young Bucks. If anyone short of WWE’s top stars could have pulled such a show off, it would be them. WWE’s contract players wouldn’t dare try; Rhodes and the Young Bucks actually did it. This isn’t just a matter of temperament and contractual obligations, though. There is a lot of history, here, labor and otherwise, that explains why Rhodes’ tweet popped the way it did.
Pro wrestlers have almost always been classified as independent contractors, and not just because of big-time pro wrestling’s reflexive union-busting proclivities. For some wrestlers, that status is legitimate: In the territorial area, wrestlers could move around as they saw fit, just as modern unsigned independent wrestlers can. It’s also fair for wrestlers contracted to many non-WWE groups to be considered independent contractors, since they generally just ask for priority or dates and sometimes not appearing on other promotions’ TV shows. Cody and the Bucks, for instance, are exclusive to Ring of Honor in the U.S. but have gotten exemptions—for shows like All In and this Sunday’s NWA 70th Anniversary Show—can fit the bill, here, as well. WWE is really the only promotion in which there is or really could be a compelling argument about the talent being employees who are misclassified as contractors. (A longstanding urban legend holds that indie promoters can book WWE talent through the front office at some kind of exorbitant rate, but while that was a regular practice in the late 1990s, a WWE spokesperson told Deadspin that said practice has long since been discontinued.) Only short-lived start-ups like the NWL, which paid wrestlers to train full time and gave them benefits, ever actually classified wrestlers as employees in the first place.
Still, there have been attempts at unions in pro wrestling in the past, most of which went nowhere. In Mexico, there is a union, though it’s largely a toothless non-entity that works as an in-house, non-confrontational wing of Consejo Mundial de Lucha Libre (CMLL), the oldest wrestling promotion in the world and one of the leading groups in Mexico. The first time in years that the union made news was last summer, and even then it was not over any collective labor actions. Instead, it was a bunch of bullshit stemming from the death of union leader Brazo de Oro and his family, the Alvarados, which wanted his job to be passed down to one of them. The biggest quality of life improvement for luchadores in recent years was Mexico City’s wrestlers getting free health care, and the union had nothing to do with it.
In years past, there had been more independent unions in Mexico, most famously the Sindicato Nacional de Luchadores (SNL), headed by Manny Guzman. In the mid-’90s, that union lost favor, as a result of disappearing pensions, a failed grandstand strike to try to get the Mexican President’s attention, and the launch of a rival promotion, AAA. When SNL started making waves about AAA, a second union was formed, in large part so AAA wrestlers and the shows they worked on wouldn’t be picketed as scab Luchadores and non-union shops.
It wasn’t always that stagey. A previous strike, in 1991, had shown that collective bargaining really could work for Mexico’s pro wrestlers. Pro wrestling had been banned from television in Mexico City since the 1950's because of a perceived negative influence on children. When it returned in 1990, CMLL, which had been freshened up by wrestling genius Antonio Peña, was ready with a slate of new, TV-ready stars like bodybuilder Konnan, goth rock ‘n’ roller Vampiro Canadiense, the colorfully attired Mascara Sagrada, and charismatic ninja Octagon. It was the beginning of a golden age for the promotion and Mexican wrestling in general, but it came with some complications.
The union was concerned that wrestling on TV would keep fans from attending live shows occurring simultaneously, and also that the TV stars would monopolize bookings with smaller promoters, leading to less bookings for local favorites. And so the union went on strike in October 1991. The initial goal was keeping the TV crew from Televisa out of wrestling shows, which the picket line did easily. After some temporary compromises like only airing undercard matches on television, the union more or less got what they wanted. Wrestling would only air on weekday nights, where there were fewer cards, and then only at a late enough hour that it would be on after the night’s events had ended. It’s the most successful collective labor action in the history of this anti-labor sport.
Mexico also offers a potential blueprint for how wrestlers could band together without a union. Lucha Libre Internacional (LLI), commonly known as the UWA because that was the fictional sanctioning body for its title belts, was one of the top promotions in the world as soon as it opened in 1975. LLI was formed to be an outlet for independent wrestlers and promoters and, per the August 23, 2003 Wrestling Observer Newsletter, sold itself to talent with a three-pronged plan: Better pay, taking a lower fee when booking wrestlers out to independent promoters so that the wrestlers had higher take-home pay, and non-exclusive contracts that let the wrestlers work anywhere.
“Anywhere” included CMLL, which meant it was soon common to see the “independent” LLI stars atop cards at CMLL-owned arenas. While LLI eventually died out in the ‘90s, it was more due to founder Francisco Flores’ nephew, Carlos Maynes, being ill-equipped to take his place than any flaws with the business model. You couldn’t repeat LLI exactly in 2018 America—for one thing there isn’t the kind of ubiquitous, semi-mainstream wrestling media that Mexico has had for decades—but it does show that there are other ways to disrupt pro wrestling in a way that benefits the men and women in the arena.
In the United States, Jesse Ventura and former NFL player Jim Wilson have been the most important players in the sport’s long-thwarted labor movement. Wilson, as he lays out in great detail in his book Chokehold, just wasn’t built for pro wrestling’s labor shenanigans. He has made a lot of outlandish claims about what led him to fall out of favor in major wrestling promotions in the 1970s, and many of those claims have been disputed by his contemporaries, but it’s clear that Wilson’s transition from the (not notably militant) NFLPA to pro wrestling was a jarring one. He was nowhere near a big enough star or well-liked enough a locker room presence to make a dent on the wrestling side, and he claimed to find no unions willing to help him organize the business. There are elements of Wilson’s life story that need to be taken with a grain of salt, but Chokehold is so well-researched—by both Wilson and co-author Weldon Johnson, who had boxes of FOIA requests and lawsuit discovery at their disposal—that it stands as an essential chronicle of pro wrestling’s labor issues despite its at-times unreliable narrator.
Ventura, for his part, has told his story numerous times, most notably in extreme detail on Steve Austin’s podcast two years ago. There, Ventura expressed his disgust with WWE wrestlers being classified as independent contractors. “I thought, ‘we are not independent contractors—we can’t work for another promotion on Wednesday and work for you on Friday,” Ventura said. “‘It don’t work that way. How are we independent contractors?’” As the former Minnesota Governor tells it, he held a locker room meeting in 1986 about two weeks before WrestleMania 2 during which he pitched the idea a union, noting that it would be relatively easy to gather support given that all of the advertising for the show was out and the event was being held in union buildings.
“I gave this big speech, I left it at there, I went home,” Ventura told Austin. “The next night, I got a phone call from Vince [McMahon] who basically threatened to fire me if I ever brought it up again and read me the riot act. And I then did WrestleMania 2 and immediately left and did Predator and was a member of the Screen Actors Guild. [That’s] my union that I get retirement from now, healthcare from, all of that from. And so, when I came back, I told Vince point blank, ‘Vince, I won’t ever bring up union again.’ And I said, ‘if these guys are too stupid to fight for their rights, I have my union now. I’m a member of the Screen Actors Guild. I get healthcare, I get retirement, I get everything from them. I’ll pay my union dues.”
Several years later, Ventura sued WWE for unpaid home video royalties and won; he presented a case that he was defrauded because only agreed to no royalties after he was misled about which WWE talent got them. Curious how Vince had found out about the unionization meeting, Jesse asked his lawyer in the case, David Olsen, to bring it up during the WWE owner’s deposition by asking Vince if there was a wrestling union and then if anyone had ever tried to start one. “I remember the quote,” Ventura recalled. “He said ‘Jesse Ventura may have spouted his mouth off about it one time,’ so they asked ‘How did you know?’ and without hesitation, he said ‘Hulk Hogan told me.’”
Knowing the wrestling business in general and WWE in particular, it would be hard to bet against the same thing would happen today. WWE is about to become profitable beyond wrestlers’ wildest imaginations when its new domestic TV deals start in a year, but some things never change.
David Bixenspan is a freelance writer from Brooklyn, NY who co-hosts the Between The Sheets podcast every Monday at BetweenTheSheetsPod.com and everywhere else that podcasts are available. You can follow him on Twitter at @davidbix and view his portfolio at Clippings.me/davidbix.