Talk of unionizing professional wrestling pops up at least once a year, with it usually coming on the heels of another needless round of WWE releases due to “budget cuts” like my colleague Sam Fels wrote about regarding their most recent cuts last week.
Former NXT champion Keith Lee is one of those recent WWE releases. Lee had more than a six-month hiatus from the company, at one point battling health issues that included COVID-19 and heart inflammation. Lee paid out of pocket for all that, not his employer, WWE. This is the type of situation that could be avoided if the WWE or pro wrestling, in general, were unionized.
In the WWE Universe, the word ‘union’ is equivalent to the four-letter variety, unless it’s in an angle with Vince McMahon’s blessing. Back in 1999, WWE (WWF at the time) ran an angle where a group of wrestlers formed a stable called “The Union” and presented as blue-collar, hard-working regular joes. That was obviously McMahon’s depiction of the average everyday Joe Six-Pack union worker. In real life, McMahon would wedge his grapefruits between a vice grip and squeeze before allowing his precious creation to become a union shop.
Though we haven’t had any actual publicized attempts at unionizing recently, there have been attempts in the past. The most notable effort was engineered by former Governor of Minnesota Jesse “The Body” Ventura, ahead of Wrestlemania 2 in 1986. Ventura stood up in front of all the wrestlers in the locker room after waiting on the agents (now called producers) to clear out and gave his speech on the advantages of unionizing and how they could go about getting it done. Word of Ventura’s pep talk got back to McMahon and earned him a nice ass-chewing for his efforts. The biggest star in the company at the time, Hulk Hogan, turned real-life heel on Ventura and spilled the beans to Vince about his speech:
“I gave this big speech, I left it there, I went home. The next night, I got a phone call from Vince, 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 now, my union that I get retirement from now, healthcare from, all of that from.”
Ventura’s incident before Wrestlemania 2 wasn’t the first time one of the ‘boys’ had attempted to get other wrestlers on board with unionizing. Over the years, other notable names in the pro wrestling bubble have supported the idea of a union in their sport. Names like Bret “Hitman” Hart, Rowdy Roddy Piper, Chris Jericho, Terry Funk, and even Goldberg have spoken about the idea of having a union in professional wrestling.
In the early 1970s, Jim Wilson, a former collegiate and professional football player, spouted off about unionizing wrestling. This attempt was during the territory days of pro wrestling when the industry was extremely cutthroat. Having played in the NFL, Wilson came into the world of pro wrestling and saw all its flaws, and immediately thought the industry needed a union. Wilson’s attempt at regulating wrestling in Georgia got him blackballed by the National Wrestling Alliance. Even after being ousted by the NWA, Wilson spent years trying to reform wrestling. He wrote a book in 2003 titled CHOKEHOLD: Pro Wrestling’s Real Mayhem Outside the Ring.
The WWE needs a union and always has, but it’s going to take prominent names within the company speaking up if it’s ever going to happen. I’m not talking about names from the past either. Current big names and main eventers would need to stand up. If John Cena, Roman Reigns, or Stone Cold Steve Austin stood up in the prime of their WWE runs, there might have already been a union in place for WWE performers. But like Hogan in the ’80s, doing that would have leveled out the playing field in terms of payouts. But with the guaranteed contract model McMahon was forced to implement in the mid-’90s (due to losing talent to WCW offering guaranteed contracts), I seriously doubt top guys would have seen a drastic drop in their income because of union representation.
McMahon has fought tooth and nail ever since he took over complete control of the company (then WWF) from his father, Vincent J. McMahon, to have his style of wrestling viewed on a mainstream level. Vincent Kennedy’s done everything his father would have disapproved of had he known his son’s big plan when he sold him the company in 1982. Vincent K. took every aspect of Hollywood and shoved it into his 20x20 squared circle. Everything except unionization and protection for his workers, that is.
The odds of a full-on pro wrestling union seem fairly slim as long as the McMahons rule the roost. Where McMahon and WWE are concerned, I’ll believe it when I see it. Covered healthcare for wrestlers and their families would be a start, and honestly, most performers would be good with that. But a union would guarantee that and so much more. And that’s why McMahon will fight that battle until the day he’s no longer able to resist.