The Forbidden: A Pro Wrestling Union


Brian Damage

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.

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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.

9 thoughts on “The Forbidden: A Pro Wrestling Union

  1. Sure, agree wholeheartedly, but question is, what happens a wrestler gets released? Does his membership in the union just dissolve due to the fact that he/she is no longer a member of WWE/TNA/GFW (and any other)? For a union to work, it has to encompass all organizations. It has to work for the wrestler, and not have backdoor dealings with organizations. A leader with a good union backround, and preferably one who has a least a layman’s understanding of pro wrestling is crucial. Pro wrestling, for a union to work, needs an unflappable leader like Marvin Miller, who for many years was the player union leader for major league baseball. He took no shit from the owners, and didn’t compromise the principles of the men that he stood for. That is what pro wrestling needs. An executive board that features Don Callis and Jesse Ventura, who have dipped their toes in union waters, is also a must. Could it work? Only if the wrestlers band together and not waiver, and if they show the fat cat promoters and owners that they aren’t bullshitting in even the least little bit, but are 100% serious in the demands and conditions that they want.

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  3. I’m surprised a union hasn’t been formed outside the major promotions and then membership extended to those workers within them. Seems like this would be a lot easier to push from a public existence than a backroom nascence. Also seems like social media could be a key component to spread the agenda and help casual wrestling fans understand the need in order to galvanize their support around the movement. It’s often said that Vince doesn’t listen to anyone, but that’s not true. He’s always listening to his customer-base/viewer-base. I do think the next major phase in professional wrestling’s post-kayfabe internet era is actually the education of the public on what the job of a professional wrestler, particularly one who starts outside WWE’s system, really is, in terms of travel, pay scale, payment terms, income growth over time, booking dates, training, lifestyle, interpersonal relationships with family, other wrestlers & promotions, injury and the risk of injury, etc. These are well-documented in other professional sports.


    • If this is something that happens, then it is crucial that this union get some backing from other unions. One that has some teeth, like the NFL, or the tv writers union. Used ot be that some fledgeling unions would pair up with other unions that had nothing in common professionally with each other (example: plumbers and singers) in order to bring strength and stability to the junior union. Social media could really help in this fashion, but one needs to remember that old habits and traditions do die hard. Fans would be a very real focal point in helping this to happen, and for the wrestlers’ sakes, I hope that they do not forget this. Time will tell if this is to be a reality or just another pipe dream. I, for one, hope it happens. Many do injure themselves as wrestlers, and if they don’t have a contract that cushions them during this time, then they have one long row to hoe in terms of financial stability and occupational steadiness,


  4. Whether or not wrestlers should unionize is a question- but using this article based on Ryback’s issues with WWE ties into the biggest downside of a union for wrestling- not as much for the performers, but definitely for promoters, bookers, and even the fans.

    Ryback’s issues stem from the fact that wins and losses that you are scripted to have dictate your star power and your eventual paycheck. On paper, this seems like a problem for the wrestlers…but in a union motif, that issue opens up the biggest issue a wrestlers’ union has.

    When you have something where scripted wins and losses dictate who makes the most money and who gets the most star quality on the shows, then a union would, by definition, dictate that this issue is fixed in order to give that money and that power to union members in a way that is beyond either “the promoter’s choice of performer”…or even the “meritocracy” manner of who the fans decide.

    From natural union regulations in most other unions, this would almost inevitably manifest in pushes being granted to performers based on their seniority and time without getting a big push, giving everyone a chance to get the intangibles of wins and pushes, so that they can get the most tangible reward they have (more money).

    This would inevitably kill a LOT of wrestling. Even if you think this is a good reward for long-running veterans like Zack Ryder who still have a strong cult following eventually getting their moment, like at Wrestlemania 32 (or even a subsequent WWE World Heavyweight Championship reign so Ryder can take home the real money)…it’s all fun and games until the inevitable PPV where you have “Even though he’s not particularly over and never really HAS been over in WWE…due to being a 8-year veteran on WWE television, union regulations mean that Summerslam 20[XX] will be main evented by Primo finally getting his chance to fight for the WWE World Heavyweight Championship.”

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