The world of professional wrestling is currently in turmoil.
Amid revelations of hush money payments to a number of women who worked as talent for World Wrestling Entertainment (WWE) who had sexual relationships with Vince McMahon, the long-time WWE CEO resigned from the company that he and his father had built since the 1950s. The idea of Vince McMahon ever retiring previously seemed far fetched to many. At the age of seventy-six, for instance, McMahon recently participated in a wrestling match at this year’s WrestleMania, WWE’s largest annual event, even receiving a patented Stone Cold Stunner from McMahon’s longtime adversary Stone Cold Steve Austin.
— Italo Santana (@BulletClubIta) April 4, 2022
Yet following a series of Wall Street Journal stories on hush money payments leading to an investigation by stockholders into the company’s financial situation, McMahon announced his retirement on Friday, July 22. In his place, Vince’s daughter, Stephanie McMahon, is now serving as chairwoman of the company.
But McMahon’s sexual exploitation of women talent both inside and outside of the ring remains only the tip of the iceberg. Under WWE employment, wrestlers have faced a litany of physical injuries and mental health issues, as well as abused steroids and other drugs. As Dan O’Sullivan has pointed out, “The billion dollar spectacle of pro wrestling relies entirely on the ruthless economic, mental, and physical exploitation of its performers.”
Former talent allege that McMahon and other high-ranking officers care little for their workers. In one tragic incident in 1999, Owen Hart fell to his death inside a WWE ring during a live pay-per-view event after an amateur rope handler misconfigured Hart’s descent from the rafters of the Kemper Arena in Kansas City, Missouri, leading to an $18-million wrongful death lawsuit.
In another prominent incident, wrestler Chris Benoit murdered his family before committing suicide. After years of brutal physical maneuvers, including the delivery of his signature flying headbutt from the top ropes, Benoit’s brain was examined after his death by Dr Julian Bailes of the Sports Legacy Institute, who reported that at age forty, the brain looked like that of an eighty-five-year-old Alzheimer’s patient.
There is no shortage of stories detailing how McMahon ran the company with an iron fist. Former talent attest to a culture of fear throughout the company. Wrestlers remained fearful to speak up on any issue, lest they find themselves released and blackballed from the company and possibly the professional wrestling world in its entirety. Indeed, the WWE exercises total control over its employees and has pushed them not to unionize.
Despite such control, WWE wrestlers remain classified as independent contractors. As a result, WWE does not pay its workers’ health care or travel expenses. While the latter may seem trivial to some, WWE is on the road five days a week, every week. Talent rarely return home and often work overseas, in Europe, South America, and, most recently, Saudi Arabia. Within the United States, their typical routine involves flying to a regional hub, such as Nashville, for instance, renting a car, and then performing in five different cities in five nights.
And even after talent are released from WWE, they must often wait ninety days until they can work for another organization. The WWE attaches such noncompete clauses seemingly in an effort to water down any excitement surrounding the reemergence of such talent under the banner of other wrestling organizations.
Yet despite existing barriers to unionization, WWE talent are acutely aware of their exploitation. They know they aren’t receiving a generous deal from a kind CEO. Instead, according to my conversations with several current and former pro wrestlers (several of whom wished to remain anonymous to avoid being punished in the wrestling world), they remain hopeful that one day unionization might transpire, that is, if they can build solidarity and ensure those at the top of the roster have their back.
A recently released WWE wrestler told me, “I think everyone would want [a union].” Yet she believes that the wrestlers would need “someone of a high stature in the company to get the ball rolling and to be a leader, to get everyone else behind it.”
Unionization Within WWE
Throughout the history of WWE, wrestlers have undertaken only one serious attempt to unionize. In the 1980s, WWE (then the World Wrestling Federation, or WWF) began to achieve widespread pop-cultural success. McMahon had bought up regional talent from across the country and successfully pushed the WWE onto television screens with the advent of cable broadcasting and a dive into pay-per-view television. In doing so, McMahon destroyed regional wrestling federations and effectively established a monopoly over the industry.
Unlike other promoters who focused on the fine-grain technicalities of wrestling maneuvers, McMahon had a more theatrical vision, replete with thunderous entrance music and larger-than-life personalities. McMahon delved into various marketing and merchandising techniques, including the widespread sale of action figures, bedsheets, lunch boxes, music albums, video cassettes, and replica props.
With Hulk Hogan (Terry Bollea) as the main face behind the company, in addition to other high-profile wrestlers such as André the Giant, Macho Man Randy Savage, and Rowdy Roddy Piper, McMahon achieved success. He brought in celebrities such as Mr T and Cyndi Lauper to pay-per-view shows and even linked up with his now longtime friend Donald Trump to host several of the initial WrestleMania events at Trump Plaza in Atlantic City.
Yet amid the company’s triumph, WWE wrestlers knew that some wrestlers, namely Hogan, were making millions of dollars, whereas others were making only a fraction of this.
Jim Brunzell, who wrestled for the WWE/WWF for the greater part of the years 1985–1993 with the famed tag team the Killer Bees and as a singles competitor, told me that he estimated Hogan was making upward of “$50,000 per week” including merchandise and all other sales, while Brunzell and others were making about “$5,000 per week.” In addition, Brunzell claims that Hogan was making a significant portion of their gate sales as well as high commissions from WWE pay-per-views.
Such pay disparities irritated many of the wrestlers in the locker room. Many of them had the same grueling schedule that Hogan had yet were paid much less. Many wrestlers took no time off and traveled endlessly.
“Vince wanted to work us to the bone, and for three and a half years, he did. [My tag team partner] Brian and I averaged twenty-seven days a month on the road,” Brunzell told me.
Even the pilots who regularly saw the WWE wrestlers on the planes in the 1980s were alarmed by how much they traveled: “I told this one pilot I was flying twenty-five days a month” at the time, Brunzell recalls. “He said, ‘That’s not good for you. The pilots don’t even fly that much.’”
Given the vast disparities in pay between Hogan and other wrestlers, as well as between McMahon and the workers, Brunzell and former-wrestler-turned-Minnesota-governor Jesse Ventura began in 1986 to discuss the possibility of unionizing the WWE. Brunzell figured it was the only way to bring some transparency to what everyone was making.
“I thought, ‘Jeez. . . . They’re making millions of dollars weekly with the WWE. We have no idea as the performers, as the artists, how much they’re really making,’” he said.
Before Brunzell and Ventura made a push before the WWE locker room, Brunzell phoned Gene Upshaw, who was a former National Football League (NFL) football player for the Oakland Raiders and had now become the head of the NFL Players Association, later leading a strike against the NFL in 1987. Brunzell recounts how Upshaw told him that if they didn’t have Hogan on board with the unionization effort, it would fail.
Brunzell and Hogan were old friends from a former wrestling territory in the Upper Midwest, the American Wrestling Association. Brunzell recalls that Hogan helped Brunzell get his job with the WWE to begin with. Brunzell said that he personally spoke with Hogan about unionizing the WWE and about how performers were concerned about their bodies, their pay, and their retirement: “When I talked to Hulk about the union, he says, ‘Jeez, I would never do that’ because that would [have] hurt him the most. . . . He wasn’t going to rock the boat.”
Though Brunzell and Ventura were disappointed, Brunzell says he understood Hogan’s position. Hogan seemingly feared that a unionization effort might result in a pay reduction for him, and above all, Hogan wanted to make as much money as possible.
But Hogan didn’t stop there. He divulged to McMahon that Brunzell and Ventura were planning a unionization push. McMahon was incensed and, as Ventura revealed in his autobiography, called Ventura to voice his opposition to a wrestling union. Though this wasn’t made public until a Senate inquiry involving McMahon and the WWE in 1991, Brunzell says that the locker room was well aware who snitched on them.
“It was only natural. They communicated every day. Hulk was Vince’s boy and vice versa,” he said.
With Hogan unwilling to help and McMahon now aware of the push, any previous momentum to unionize the workers had floundered. Since the Brunzell/Ventura push to unionize, no other similar, serious effort has ever developed.
No Efforts Since
But amid the global pandemic and more intensified controls over WWE talent, calls to unionize have once again been heard, with labor lawyer Lucas Middlebrook and former presidential candidate and businessman Andrew Yang seeking to assist wrestlers should they want their help.
In May 2022, Yang tweeted that WWE wrestlers were “long overdue” for a union and that they could contact Middlebrook to discuss how they “can help you and yours get what you’re actually bringing in for the organization and take care of your family.”
You know who is long overdue for a union? Both the WWE and UFC. UFC fighters get 10 – 15% of revenue. For other major sports it’s 50%. That means fighters are underpaid and should be getting 3 to 5 times more.
— Andrew Yang🧢⬆️🇺🇸 (@AndrewYang) May 11, 2022
Yang and Middlebrook’s partnering on the issue comes on the heels of several WWE wrestlers tweeting support for unions following the WWE forcing talent to terminate their partnerships with Twitch, a streaming platform where individuals can accrue revenue from subscribers. Thea Trinidad (Zelina Vega), for instance, was initially fired after she refused acquiesce to these demands. She has since returned to the company but is no longer active on Twitch.
Perhaps most puzzling is that despite this control, WWE talent are still considered “independent contractors.” Most independent contractors have the ability to work wherever they wish, given this sort of classification. Yet somehow, the WWE has been legally able to use this classification all the while exerting widespread control over their contractors. Indeed, abusing independent contractor status is a common tactic that other corporations, such as Uber and Lyft, use in order to deny workers rights.
One anonymous former WWE wrestler told me:
Right now, if you’re a professional wrestler [for the WWE], you basically just sign away your rights and hope that you’re one of the five people that gets picked to be the face of the company, at least for a small moment in your life.
Middlebrook is hoping that his and Yang’s efforts will catalyze a newfound push.
“Andrew and I have the objective to create a vehicle to be able to help the WWE entertainers unionize,” Middlebrook told me. “But it takes more than more than an attorney and a businessman who ran for president. You have to have the individuals who are going to be affected by the unionization [on board]. Because without that buy-in, it’s outsiders.”
Middlebrook contends that he and Yang wish to help WWE performers any way they can, but they can’t organize the workers on the ground themselves.
Discontent Persists Amid COVID
Like Brunzell and Ventura, there’s no question that contemporary WWE performers recognize that they are often making very little in comparison with the top performers and the top executives within WWE. And basic labor concerns persist throughout the company.
As the pandemic unfolded, the world ground to a halt. One of the few entertainment outfits to continue, though, was the WWE and its rival All Elite Wrestling (AEW), with each filming out of their respective locations in Florida. The WWE claimed to have a proper testing protocol in place, but talent and employees were continually contracting the virus.
Levi Cooper, who wrestled for the WWE under the name Tucker, primarily as one-half of the blue-collar tag team Heavy Machinery, revealed to me how “there was no real testing protocols or anything put in place until there was a big outbreak.” He says this was the moment he realized that the WWE as a “corporate power structure” cared little for its actual workers and their health:
At that juncture, I personally felt like, “Hey, it’ll continue to run this TV show no matter what the cost is.” That made me feel like the TV show is more important than I am as an individual and my safety. I don’t think I ever really recovered from that . . . the way I was feeling about the company.
Cooper says that was the point he felt he needed to speak up for the wellbeing of other wrestlers.
He says he wrote “a pretty long email about some things that I was uncomfortable with around COVID protocols.” While some changes resulted, several months later Cooper was released, with WWE citing budget cuts as the rationale.
Beyond COVID, labor concerns within the WWE remain, many of which echo the same concerns Ventura and Brunzell raised decades prior.
Workers attest to feeling alienated within the company. They say they feel replaceable and unable to exert any creative influence on the direction of their characters. Instead, they have felt beholden to McMahon and his production team, lest they find themselves out of work.
One former wrestler told me that even after nearly a decade working for the corporation that he felt “replaceable and not uniquely valued.”
Many wrestlers believe that a union could provide them with many of the benefits and services that they are not receiving from the company, including health care and travel expenses. The union would be the vehicle through which they could change other existing issues.
One former wrestler described the absurdity of the WWE work schedule and how dangerous wrestlers’ driving schedule is. He said he believes a union could help with this.
“To be at work from, let’s say, noon until when the show’s over, which could be midnight — that’s a twelve-hour day. But then you also have to drive to the next town” — which could be three hundred miles away.
Others point out how frustrating they find booking all of their travel and health care expenses. Cooper says that while his contract was for $250,000 a year, he “was spending about $70,000 or so of that on hotels, rental cars, food, gear, boots, suits, and stuff for TV.”
Cooper recognizes that he made a considerable amount of money during his time with the company. But he also recognizes the commitment he had to a large corporation headed by a billionaire.
“I was doing well, right? Like I’m taking home about $175,000 or $180,000 a year. But I also missed probably 250 out of 365 days of my young daughter’s life during that time span.”
The Future of WWE
Former talent attest that they believe that a union will eventually arrive within WWE, but the issue of getting top wrestlers on board persists.
Yang and Middlebrook, for their part, remain willing to assist but are limited in what they can do. The actors’ union the Screen Actors Guild — American Federation of Television and Radio Artists (SAG-AFTRA) has also voiced support for wrestlers. But the wrestlers themselves are the ones who need to organize.
WWE has remained a very closed organization. With McMahon gone, however, an opportunity may now exist to change the industry. No doubt many wrestlers enjoy a lifestyle that allows them to travel the world and earn substantial amounts of money. But they know that others are making far more than them, often at the expense of their own bodies and minds.
As Cooper tells me:
Getting your body taken care of. Getting your mind taken care of. Those are the kinds of protections that I think would be right for a company that’s making the amount of money that it’s been making for as long as it’s been making it.