Hard Times: WWE’s Rampant Labor Abuse

In the 1980’s, Jesse Ventura started talk of a union in the WWF locker room. When Hulk Hogan, the Real American in the nastiest sense of the word, got wind of it, he immediately turned and ratted the budding collective out to Vince. Such is the story of labor politics in WWE condensed into its purest form. Treated like employees when it’s convenient and “independent contractors” when it’s not, WWE wrestlers suffer from both sides.

Before we go further, let’s define the difference between an employee and an independent contractor. The IRS has a nifty guide, but the three main points are as follows:

  • Behavioral control: does the worker dictate when and where to work or how much instruction to receive? Is the worker being trained or did they come pre-qualified? Is the worker evaluated by how the work is done, or simply the end result?
  • Financial control: Does the worker incur unreimbursed expenses? Is the worker paid an hourly or weekly wage, or a flat fee per job? Can the worker seek out simultaneous business opportunities?
  • Relationship between worker and employer: How is the contract written? Are benefits provided? How permanent is the arrangement?

These are not always black and white, but they point to a general theme regarding how much influence the employer exerts over the worker’s services and outside ventures. WWE houses its wrestlers in a bizarre limbo, despite officially declaring them as contractors.

Wrestlers cannot, generally, book non-WWE wrestling shows, which in itself is an argument-killer. They do not receive health insurance. They pay for their own travel and lodging, completely unreimbursed, despite this arrangement being necessary to put on a weekly traveling show. They do not receive health insurance. Vince notoriously micromanages workers. The workers, whose profession is all about incurring steady bodily damage and occasional serious injuries, do not receive health insurance.

Are you joking?

As Ventura put it on The Steve Austin Show: “You work for one company. They order you around, control your whole life. How are you possibly an independent contractor? Except they don’t have to pay your social security.”

As with a million other problems in the wrestling industry, it thrives only because it operates in the shadows. It still has a perception of being a niche interest, and despite WWE’s thirst for the mainstream, “real” journalism has never really gone digging for dirt. It’s a shame, too; you wouldn’t even need to dig.

This enormous company built on the blood and broken bones of its labor by nature refuses to take care of them at the most basic level. (This is true of every company, but it’s much more literal here.) We own your life, but you’re responsible for the baggage that comes with it.

And I can’t blame anyone for taking this rigged deal. 99 percent of wrestlers’ main goal is to get to the biggest name in town, for stability or fame or their dream or a million other reasons. This still doesn’t excuse the labor abuse that is unquestionably occurring here.

If someone is only allowed to work for you, they sound pretty dependent, don’t they? If “just go get another job” was viable advice, we wouldn’t even have or need worker protection in the first place.

For a strike to work, you’d need someone like Cena on board, and that’s a laughable idea.

The only form of resistance, which would 100 percent get someone fired from this company, comes from the IRS: “Workers who believe an employer improperly classified them as independent contractors can use Form 8919 to figure and report the employee’s share of uncollected Social Security and Medicare taxes due on their compensation.”

We don’t know why Jesse Ventura never “got to the Senate” to investigate, as he’d threatened to do.

Maybe someday, wrestling. Maybe someday.

-Bobby Murphy (@RobertJMurph)

Image courtesy WWE.com

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