Two hurdles to fighter unionization


Fighter compensation is one of the hot topics in MMA this year, with various parties arguing about whether fighter pay is reasonable, and if not, where it should come from. Should the lower tier be getting more, taken from top main event fighters? Or should it come from managament? Or should ticket and PPV prices be higher? Should top main event fighters make more, and prelim fighters less, and the main event fighters are the draws?

One frequently proposed solution is for fighters to Unionize, and thereby presumably draw a larger share of the income in MMA.

UFC president Dana White has expressed little concern at all about the prospect, saying repeatedly that it is up to the fighters, and not him.

“The thing about fighting is, fighting is not a team sport; it’s an individual sport,” White told MMAWeekly in 2012. “It’s going to be tough to see a day when Silva or GSP is giving up big chunks of their money to guys who won’t make two fights in the UFC.”

“If it happens, it happens. I have to negotiate with somebody on the fight contracts.”

In an extended piece at BloodyElbow, John S. Nash interviewed two professors with a specialty in labor relations, Dr. James B. Dworkin from the University of Purdue, and Professor Zev J. Eigen from Northwestern University, to go over the feasibility of unionizing MMA.

If the fighters in the UFC did decide to unionize, how would they do it? The rather straightforward process can be explained in three simple steps:

Step 1: Get at least 30% of the roster to sign authorization cards signifying their desire to be represented by a union, and then present these signed cards to a Regional Office of the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB).

Step 2: Once the NLRB has certified these signatures, they would hold and supervise an election during which the fighters could vote "yes" or "no" on unionization.

Step 3: If the majority voted "yes," then the fighters of the UFC would now have their own union, which could then immediately enter into negotiations with their employers on their behalf.

However, two things stand in the way.

Unlike in baseball or football, the athletes of MMA do not have the luxury of being together during preseasons and the long extended regular season, where they can gather to discuss the merits of forming a union, create organizing committees, plan strategies to collect the required signatures and win the vote, etc. Instead, the UFC has a roster of up to 400 active fighters spread across the far reaches of the globe, who rarely see each other outside of a handful of fellow UFC fighters in their gym or camp. Of this number, there is also a sizable amount of turnover. After every event, fighters are let go while new names are signed to the promotion. Convincing and attaining the signatures of thirty percent of an ever-changing roster from around the world in the face of likely resistance from the owner is nothing short of a herculean task.

Even if 400 fighters across several continents could accomplish the first step, it would not matter, because they are each classified as independent contractors, and independent contractors cannot form a union.

While Eigen argues that UFC fighters should probably be classified as employees based on how restrictive their contracts are, as long as they're not, under federal law, independent contractors can not legally form a union. Any attempt to do so would be rejected by the National Labor Relations Board.

Thus, the idea of an MMA Fighters' Union is dead before it's even born.

"Another option," says Eigen, "which is open to independent contractors is an association. Fighters could look at this to gain some of the same benefits from a union."

A union is an organization of workers who act jointly to negotiate benefits and rights within their workplace. An association is a non-profit organization that promotes a profession by maintaining standards and advocating its interests. Because unions directly negotiate on behalf of the employees, they are allowed under the National Labor Relation Act to collectively bargain and strike if necessary. Neither of these tools is available to an association. That doesn't mean, though, that an association would have no impact on the fighters' current conditions.

"Having an association is going to give you better protections than having no representation at all," says Dworkin. "It could help them get little higher wages, better health coverage. Another reason is the safety issue. With concussions being a serious thing, you want someone representing their issues and not the owners."

While an association could help give a voice to the fighters on a whole range of issues - testing, TRT exemptions, pay minimums, judging, refereeing, rule changes - it also could prove beneficial to the UFC with regards to their own lobbying efforts. "I imagine," said Eigen, "that it would be harder to argue against [sanctioning MMA] when it's the fighters advocating for it and not a lobbyist for a huge corporation looking to expand its market."

In comparison to a union, with its mandatory collection of signatures and NLRB supervised vote, the forming of an association is a much simpler process. All it really takes is for someone to decide that there needs to be a Mixed Martial Artists Fighters Association. (In fact, someone already did.) Of course, there's more to it than simply declaring one. Organizing, drafting mission statements, determining leadership, financing, and a host of other items still have to be taken care of, for it to be effective. An association's strength corresponds to the amount of support it has among the fighters.

Read entire article...

What do you think UG? Should there be a union? Should there be an association? And if so, how.

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Recent Comments »

BTT-RyannVonDoom site profile image  

7/23/13 1:32 PM by BTT-RyannVonDoom

Wrong. This will end up EXACTLY like the Prowrestling Union. 

Macedawgg site profile image  

7/23/13 1:15 PM by Macedawgg

I agree the question is logical. Yet, you will find when you speak to fighters, no MATTER the level or what organization they are in, they want to end up in only one place--the UFC.  That is true for the overwhelming majority of people I speak too, and it is extremely common for those in Bellator. 

Steve4192 site profile image  

7/23/13 1:07 PM by Steve4192

Their status as independent contractors is eventually going to be settled in court. Someone just needs to step and be the MMA equivalent of Curt Flood and risk their career in order to make it happen. The sooner that happens, the sooner things like a union or an association will gain some traction.

Jambo888 site profile image  

7/23/13 12:53 PM by Jambo888

I would like more analysis on fighters as independent contractors. It seems that UFC has all the control of fighters, their image, work, sponsors and future earnings from their work. the business profs could shed some light here. if fighters had the ability to capitalize more on their image would it resolve anything? perhaps not as the issue revolves around level or popularity of fighters which up and comers don't have. 

Steve4192 site profile image  

7/23/13 12:52 PM by Steve4192

Also, FWIW, I am of the opinion that bonuses don't do shit for performance on the macro level. On the micro level, there are a few guys like Joe Lauzon and Chris Lytle who have the mental makeup to take advantage of bonuses, but they are the exception, not the rule. Providing a higher base compensation and greater cash-flow certainty to fighters would drive performance far better than an arbitrary bonus system.

Macedawgg site profile image  

7/23/13 12:51 PM by Macedawgg

No, I agree with you on that point Steve.  My comment was in general. 

Steve4192 site profile image  

7/23/13 12:46 PM by Steve4192

I'm not supporting anything.I actually agree with (what I thought was) your position regarding discretionary bonuses. Doing away with them and shifting that money into a higher baseline for pay would (1) provide guys at the bottom of the ladder with a living income and (2) provide transparency in fighter pay. Obviously, a living wage for bottom-rung fighters would lead to fewer stories about guys living on ketchup and rice or having to hold down a full-time job while competing. Transparency would be a boon to agents, managers, and any efforts to organize the labor force. IMO, converting discretionary income into guaranteed income would be a massive win for fighters, even if the size of the pie stays the same. Obviously, increasing the size of the pie would be a bigger win, but a structural change in fighter compensation would still be a major step forward. I thought you shared that opinion. Was I mistaken?

Macedawgg site profile image  

7/23/13 12:34 PM by Macedawgg

I wonder if people are still confused as to whether these are legitimate fan posters--that literally do gymnastics to support absurd positions. 

Macedawgg site profile image  

7/23/13 12:33 PM by Macedawgg

You mean he made pay contractual as opposed to discretionary?  I must have missed that change--or perhaps you are mistaken.

Gobulcoque site profile image  

7/23/13 12:25 PM by Gobulcoque

If I was the UFC I'd be completely embarrassed to have Cindy O representing me on this forum. Don't understand why she hates fighters so much.