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