McMahon and the WWE have repeatedly distanced themselves from any liability for worker safety
While organising is linked to petty villainy in McMahon’s mind in the on-screen drama, it seems to be the same in reality for the WWE. Though, to be fair, the WWE does take steps to increase safety and maintain standards (more than many independent rivals), McMahon and the WWE have repeatedly distanced themselves from any liability for worker safety, especially in relation to the ever-increasing knowledge about the dangers of concussions in contact sports. When concussion trauma was linked to the murder-suicide committed by wrestler Chris Benoit, WWE deflected the focus on their industry any way they could and wrote the whole thing off as an individual’s actions that had nothing to do with them. WWE may not have been responsible for Benoit’s actions, but that doesn’t mean that the environment they profit from, and the unsafe cultures they reward, are above question.
Certainly it’s part of the culture that – when there’s money at stake – wrestlers work injured. Recently, Rey Mysterio blew out his knee (yet again) wrestling a television match, even though it was universally predicted that – already injured – Mysterio would likely end up in surgery again when he wrestled (he did). Though suffering a concussion this year, Randy Orton was quickly, and conveniently, cleared to wrestle only days later. Someone like John Cena refusing help leaving the ring after being injured on a house show earlier this year might have made for a good show of bravado, but sets a tough standard for those lower down the card who don’t have his multi-million dollar income and have a lot to lose from injury mismanagement. “Working hurt” makes no sense, but remains as much a part of wrestling culture as it was in the bad old days.
It’s also made more problematic by the WWE’s all-year schedule. As they proudly proclaim, there’s no “off-season” in wrestling. That’s good for the fan, but less so for the basic worker who need to hang on to their “spot” and doesn’t want to risk falling behind (in the highly ego- and politics-driven backstage realm) due to taking some time off to heal – let alone just taking some time off just to spend a little time with the family away from an airport. Great performer John Morrison was recently rushed back into the fold, potentially far too early after a neck injury, for a cheap pop on RAW. Despite the health risks he took, Morrison continues to be ignored when it comes to on-screen time, victories, and worthwhile storylines.
Insiders frequently see these “pushes” and “de-pushes” as being tied to backstage politics. More objective observers might call that workplace bullying.
One of the reasons the WWE can get away with this is because the wrestlers have so little power: technically, they’re not even employees of the WWE. Instead, they’re classified as “independent contractors”, despite being contractually forbidden to work elsewhere and required to travel whenever required and meet out-of-hours (ie. 24 hours) corporate obligations and standards. In a press release a while back, WWE corporate proudly boasted about how they maintain full control over their wrestlers’ careers and licensing, avoiding pesky negotiations with middlemen (or the wrestlers themselves). Attempts at outside interests are rarely welcomed in the WWE, especially if you’re a woman (i.e., worthless) – just ask former “Divas” Mickie James or Maria, who made the mistake of starting singing careers.
All of this works for the top guys, of course, who have enough money to take care of themselves. But the “sink or swim” workers lower down the card may find their bodies “battered” and “bruised” (as WWE loudly proclaims on their “don’t try this at home” video) and generally used up, with most of their earnings spent on travel from town to town (that the WWE doesn’t pay for). Drugs and pain-killers, often taken just to keep up with the never-ending schedule, are another – all too frequent and too large to cover here – issue.
This “independent contractor” status was an issue raised briefly when Linda McMahon first ran for senate. It’s an issue that deserves to be raised again, and hopefully will be once more now that she’s running again. Classifying its employees as “independent contractors” reduces the WWE’s obligations to its employees and presumably saves them a bundle in tax, but the chains that bind their performers make it a blatant rort, if only ethically, thanks to whatever legal loopholes the WWE is squeezing itself through.
With Linda running again, this appearance of this “heels unionize” storyline starts to make a lot more sense.
Whether or not a union would solve these issues is debatable, but it’s a debate that needs to be had – openly and publicly – and its pretty disgusting for McMahon and the WWE to be treating worker safety and organization as a “bad guys” storyline when they have serious question to answer about the legality of their worker classifications and the long-term safety of their industry.
In fact, a union for wrestlers was raised back in the ‘80s by none other than Jesse “The Body Ventura”, former Navy SEAL (well, sort of), former wrestler, former wrestling announcer (occasionally wiped off of recordings by the WWE who tried to swindle him out of royalties), and former Governor of Minnesota.
In attempting to organise fair working conditions for the wrestlers and some degree of certainty and transparent standards, Jesse was sold out to the bosses by none other than… Hulk Hogan. Apparently the face of the company didn’t like the idea that workplace fairness and transparency might threaten his pay packet, already countless times larger than many of the wrestlers taking more risks and doing more work than Hogan. Jesse’s still talking, but it still seems like the mainstream media isn’t willing to pay any real attention (admittedly, Jesse’s evidence-lite Conspiracy Theory TV show probably doesn’t help his credibility much).
Even if “union” still sends some people into fits of anti-socialism terror, Ventura is pretty blunt about the basic aims of the whole thing:
“If you look at self employment, the wrestlers are signed to exclusive contracts. How is that being self employed? You can’t go work for another organization. They own you exclusively. How does that make you self employed? If they were truly self employed, I’d say fine, but when you look at the law and how it works, they’re not self employed. It’s laughable. If you look at it, wrestling’s still the only industry that doesn’t have a union and it’s not a union to fight Vince. It’s a union to get retirement. It’s a union to get health benefits. Let’s remember, wrestlers are not financial planners. You can go to Mickey Rourke’s movie and see that clearly. So, why shouldn’t there be a retirement? Why shouldn’t there be strength in those numbers? But, it falls on deaf ears because, you know, Vince isn’t going to unionize. Unless they have the courage to do it themselves, it ain’t gonna happen”.
Getting an outsider’s look into the industry after making The Wrestler, Darren Aronofsky asked what should be an obvious question – where’s the Screen Actors Guild?
“I think the problem starts with the fact that they’re not organized and they’re not unionized. That’s the main problem. I mean, there’s really no reason why these guys are not in SAG. They’re as much screen actors as stuntmen. If not more. They’re in front of a camera performing and doing stunts, and they should have that protection. That’s the only thing that for me came out of it. Why doesn’t SAG help get these guys organized? They’re on TV performing. Or, if they’re not even on TV, the ring is a theater. So they’re not just screen actors, they’re theater actors. They’re performers. They should have insurance and they should have health insurance and they should be protected”.
So, the fact that the WWE’s “bad guys rush to the lawyers over workplace safety” has – so far – been presented in such a subdued manner shouldn’t make us pay less attention to it. Will this blow up into an “investigating workplace issues is for heels and cowards” issue? Probably. Given that ultra-powerful son-in-law Triple H is their target – almost certainly.
Wrestling is full of stupid stories, but that doesn’t stop insidious messages creeping through – especially for a product now aimed heavily at kids. The idea that workplace safety
issues being considered and questioned – in the face of a capricious and nepotistic organisation – is something that’s cowardly and dastardly is already something that has far too much traction in society. Media criticism of television stories like this isn’t about censorship – McMahon can say what he likes – but about making sure that the invisible connotations are made bluntly visible, and that these representations don’t slip into society unquestioned and unanswered.
Cultural ideas aren’t spread by speeches and political manoeuvring. They’re spread in smaller, less-noticeable doses. McMahon clearly has a vested interest in undermining industrial oversight, workplace safety, and worker solidarity.
Adding to the image and feeding it to thousands of children around the world can only serve McMahon’s ongoing interests in undermining authentic concern over the WWE’s working conditions and status an an employer, as well as continuing to entrench his own wealth and power.
The rest of the media shouldn’t be let off so lightly, either. Serious stories about workplace issues are rare and, when we see them, usually sensationalised or twisted into “the little lawyer that could” feel-good fluff.
WWE’s “union” storyline hasn’t blossomed yet – but it’s worth keeping an eye on, especially when Linda McMahon’s fresh bid for the senate will see the WWE turn subtly (and not-so-subtly) towards propaganda wrapped in the alluring guise of mere “entertainment”.