For many years there have been discussions over a wrestlers union, with Jesse Ventura being a long-time advocate for it. In today’s piece we take a look at these calls for wrestling to become unionized and the difference that it would make to the in-ring performers.
As we are all aware, professional wrestling is both athletic competition and predetermined entertainment. A man or a woman wins and another one loses. Unless you are way high up on the political food chain, there really is no control over a particular outcome for a wrestler. If you are booked to lose, you are going to lose and vice versa.
Ryan Reeves aka ‘Ryback’ took himself off WWE TV while his new contract was in limbo. Reeves, then went on social media to explain his reasons why for the hiatus. He explained that in the wacky, predetermined world of pro wrestling and in particular the WWE….wins and losses actually mean a lot. It will determine your paycheck and how much merchandise you can sell and profit from. Essentially, there are the haves and the have nots.
The haves are the main event guys that win the majority of their matches and in turn get paid a much better rate then the have nots, who may lose a majority of their matches, have little or no merchandise and get paid way less. All the while, Vince McMahon and WWE creative control who wins and loses on a daily basis. Ryan Reeves comments has reignited a long debated issue in professional wrestling circles…should there be a pro wrestling union?
Some fans are in favor, while others oppose. Ask a wrestler who is currently employed by the WWE or another major promotion…you will most likely get a non answer or a flat out no. Does this mean that they are vehemently opposed to a union or is there fear for their job security? I guess it all depends who you ask.
Looking into pro wrestling’s past, there have certainly been calls and times when a union would’ve been much needed. Starting in the late 1940’s, when the National Wrestling Alliance had a subsequent monopoly on pro wrestling here in the United States. Pro wrestlers either had to play by the NWA’s rules or be banished to the so called “outlaw” promotions or from the business altogether. When Verne Gagne’s AWA and Vince McMahon Sr’s WWWF broke away from the NWA’s stranglehold, it gave wrestlers more opportunities.
The territorial days in the 70’s and early 80’s allowed wrestlers to jump from one promotion to the next without getting old and stale. They were considered by bookers and promoters as “independent contractors,” because in truth…they really were. They worked territory to territory making as much money as they could without really committing to one particular area. Then, came Vince Jr and his efforts to expand the WWF nationally.
The territories eventually dried up and before long, Vince’s show was the only game in town. The era of ‘Rock N Wrestling’ was born and from that era came Wrestlemania and a whole host of new stars. The mid 1980’s was a huge financial boon for the WWF. It was also the right time for the WWF’s stars to get organized and ensure that their futures were secured.
The main individual who spearheaded the movement was none other than Jesse ‘the Body’ Ventura. Jesse Ventura saw a huge opportunity for the roster to take a stand, get organized, form a union and get their piece of the WWF’s pie. One night after a television taping, Ventura waited for the right time to propose his plan. WWF management were away in booking meetings and Ventura gathered all of the available wrestlers in the locker room and went to work.
He told the wrestlers about the WWF considering all of its wrestlers as independent contractors, yet were not allowed to make money elsewhere. They were exclusive property of the WWF, despite being called independent. There was no 401K, no retirement plans and no health insurance. It all didn’t measure up to Ventura. Wrestlers like Bret Hart and Rowdy Roddy Piper seemed in favor of unionization. It all seemed to be coming together…yet it never came to be. Why?
Someone had apparently gone to Vince the next day and ratted Ventura out. It subsequently scared off everybody who may have been remotely interested in unionization for fear of losing their job. Despite the failure of forming a union, Jesse Ventura still battled McMahon on several fronts. He went against Vince’s demands and filmed the movie Predator with Arnold Schwarzenegger. Vince fired Jesse for doing the movie and was hired back soon after when NBC demanded that they wanted Ventura to commentate on their Saturday Night’s Main Event program.
Ventura was again fired in three years later in 1990, when Ventura went against Vince Again and signed a video game deal with Sega. That all led to Vnetura battling McMahon in court and getting royalties from the WWF. Being the shrewd man Ventura was, he decided having Vince in court…under oath…was as good a time as any to have his lawyer question McMahon as to who was the mole that broke up Ventura’s plan for unionization.
According to Ventura, without any hesitation, McMahon said it was Hulk Hogan. Hulk, the biggest star in the company during the 80’s run had tipped Vince off to the union idea. Hulk Hogan has repeatedly denied that as being true, but it fractured the once close friendship Hogan and Ventura had.
Since that time, there have been rumors of individual wrestlers attempting to unionize pro wrestlers and all ending abruptly. One rumored individual was Don Callis aka ‘The Jackyl’ in the WWF. He was heavily rumored at one point as trying to spearhead a union during his WWF tenure back in the late 1990’s. Callis would get released from the company soon after despite big plans for his character.
Until his death, Roddy Piper was a very strong advocate for a wrestlers union. In 2009, Piper broached the topic during an interview with Slam Wrestling saying…
“My generation and the generation before me — these guys today shouldn’t have to go through what we went through. They’ve got masseurs and therapists now, whereas to save money on the road, we would’ve ordered old pizza if we could. So we’ve taken the pain. I just think, ‘C’mon guys, if it’s a billion-dollar business, which it is, give it (a union) to them.’ But wrestlers are afraid for their jobs, so it’s probably only going to be pressure from the public that makes it happen.”
The WWF/E wasn’t the only company that has had a history of hurting wrestlers in their wallets. Paul Heyman’s ECW was notorious for bouncing checks and paying wrestlers less or even late…despite all the physical sacrifices they made to their bodies. TNA wrestling has been rumored to be doing that now as well.
Back in his WCW days, Chris Jericho recalls a time his wife went to purchase a Jericho doll at a Wal-Mart, only for the register to ring it up Hulk Hogan/Sting. It was believed that WCW’s stars were getting the profits from other wrestlers merchandise. Again, the haves and the have nots.
So we return to the comments made by Ryan Reeves about money and everybody getting their fair share. Does he have a point? Is he way off base? Should he just be grateful for having a job? Is a union in professional wrestling really needed? What we do know, it is pro wrestling’s dirty word.