Vince McMahon’s desperate need to control WWE superstars could finally spark unionization

WWE, Vince McMahon (Photo by Ethan Miller/Getty Images)
WWE, Vince McMahon (Photo by Ethan Miller/Getty Images) /

As news broke that Vince McMahon has sought more control over WWE independent contractors’ ability to use additional income sources like Twitch and Cameo, could unionization be on the horizon?

It’s been 40 years since Vince McMahon, and his wife Linda, founded Titan Sports, Inc. and officially seized control of the company Vince McMahon, Sr. had originally called Capitol Wrestling Corporation. Over the past four decades, WWE CEO and Chairman Vince McMahon continued to find new ways to exert control on the wrestling industry and the talent that is a part of it, but his latest move could finally be the catalyst for change.

Earlier this week, news first broke via WrestlingInc that Vince McMahon had unilaterally decreed that WWE superstars were no longer allowed to “engage with outside third parties.” Exactly which “outside third parties” Vince McMahon has an issue with aren’t explicitly identified, but it’s currently believed this will at least include Cameo and Twitch, and that YouTube channels like Xavier Woods’ gaming channel Up Up Down Down could also be in jeopardy.

The initial reporting by WrestlingInc also specified that a call with talent last Sunday included the assertion that WWE “owns the real names of talent, not just their character names.” While reporting via Fightful Select later pushed back on that, stating “multiple wrestlers have contacted us to state that Vince McMahon did not claim that he owned their real names,” the letter sent to talent says “name and likeness.”

Vince McMahon’s decree ‘is imperative’

While WWE may not be stating they own every individual talent’s legal name, the ownership of their “likeness” is vague enough that they seem to be looking to claim any appearance, even if done so using the talent’s legal name (or an alternate name, like on Up Up Down Down) and not their WWE character name, is under their control. Further reporting from Tom Colohue of Sportskeeda stated “WWE is believed to be very close to open warfare with one top star,” and described the backstage reaction to this situation as “hostile.”

Colohue further emphasized the uncertainty among talent about whether their non-WWE projects are safe, stating “a number of people who have appeared on [Xavier Woods’ YouTube Channel Up Up Down Down] consider this ‘a slap in the face’ from management.” In response to this situation, WWE released an official statement emphasizing their “control and exploitation of these characters” being a primary revenue source.

“It is imperative for the success of our company,” the statement began, “to protect our greatest assets and establish partnerships with third parties on a companywide basis, rather than at the individual level, which as a result will provide more value for all involved.” The latter part of that statement, as Colohue pointed out, confirms his reporting about why WWE has decided to take this course of action.

WWE’s issue doesn’t seem to be with streaming games or filming shout outs to fans, but how much control they can exert over it and exactly how much of the money made from those avenues comes to them. By moving this content under the WWE umbrella, rather than it being something the talent are doing on their own, the company can make the majority of the money while controlling both the content itself and how much of that profit reaches the talents.

It hasn’t taken long for some within WWE to quietly take action, as Sasha Banks has already changed her Cameo to show her real name rather than her character name. It’s a step we may start seeing multiple WWE superstars take for Cameo and Twitch, and we could see some go as far as to quietly delete their accounts on those services to avoid any tension with WWE.

Not only these actions – but the word choices made while revealing them – show just how seriously WWE takes this situation. In Vince McMahon short 117-word letter, which is available in full via Fightful Select, he uses the phrase “it is imperative” two different times, and WWE even repeated that phrase a third time in the statement they later released regarding all of this.

While one definition of “imperative” has it describing something to be “of vital importance” or “crucial,” it is the secondary definition that feels more appropriate considering all of the overarching circumstances at play here. “Giving an authoritative command; peremptory,” and “peremptory” is defined as “insisting on immediate attention or obedience” and “not open to appeal or challenge; final.”

The exact language is key here, and WWE knows exactly what they are doing and the message these words are sending. This isn’t meant to be a negotiation or a discussion, it’s a command. That’s why the letter went on to threaten “fines, suspension, or termination at WWE’s discretion” if anyone continued to utilize these third parties on their own.

This is yet another moment in which Vince McMahon is desperately seeking to exert every single iota of control he possibly can on his employees. This is far from the first time Vince McMahon has tried to exert this type of control, even going as far as financially manipulating JJ Dillon, which was revealed in Dillon’s book and later pointed out by David Bixenspan.

Sorry, I misspoke a moment ago. They’re not actually employees. They’re independent contractors. WWE is exerting control over their “independent contractors,” which makes approximately zero sense when you stop and take a moment to think about it.

‘Independent contractors’

Just last year, days before WrestleMania 35, Last Week Tonight with John Oliver took a deep and unflinching look at WWE’s classification of their talent as “independent contractors.” Oliver also discussed the potential power unionization could have to help the talent being forced to operate under this control and gave a reminder that Jesse “The Body” Ventura even tried to unionize the wrestlers back in 1984, but McMahon (with an assist from Hulk Hogan) quickly stomped out that possibility.

During the episode, Last Week Tonight also played a clip of Jesse Ventura appearing on The Howard Stern Show where he said this of WWE superstars being “self-employed” independent contractors: “How are you self-employed when you’re signed exclusively? You can’t work for nobody else. They tell you when and where you’ll work. Then tell you who you’ll work. They totally control your life, and yet they call you an independent contractor. How has the government allowed them to get away with that for 35 to 40 years?”

WWE’s choice to classify their talent as independent contractors has been challenged before. Back in 2008, former WWE talents Raven, Chris Kanyon, and Michael Sanders filed a lawsuit against WWE alleging they were “improperly characterized” as independent contractors. One part of the complaint, which can be seen here in full, read as follows:

"4. At all times relevant herein, defendant WWE has exercised total control over all aspects of the wrestlers’ employment, including as follows:defendant determines the wrestlers’ physical training regimen;defendant determines the wrestlers’ skill training regimen;defendant determines the location where the wrestlers perform;defendant determines the time the wrestlers perform;defendant determines who the wrestlers compete with and against, the duration of each match, and the outcome of each match;defendant has the right to require that the wrestlers wrestle in a team and has the right to choose the co-workers for such a team;defendant determines the costumes and hairstyles that the wrestlers’ wear and has the right to require the use of company costumes and performance props;defendant determines the wrestlers’ stage persona and the specific traits of that persona, and further determines the mannerisms that the wrestlers use while performing and what signature moves and props the wrestlers use and when they may use them;defendant requires the wrestlers to adhere to certain story lines, including the specific dialogue of the requisite pre- and post-match boasting and badmouthing of the wrestlers’ opponent(s);defendant has the right to use the wrestlers’ likeness or image in perpetuity;defendant has the right to negotiate and enter into any agreements for the exploitation of intellectual property based on the wrestlers’ personae for merchandising, commercial tie-ins, publishing, personal appearances, performance in non-wrestling events, and endorsements;defendant has the right to require the wrestlers to submit to drug screening;defendant unilaterally determines how the wrestlers are compensated."

Perhaps the most amazing thing about seeing this all laid out is considering the ways that control has only grown since then. The lawsuit was filed in 2008, but primarily dealt with the way WWE had operated when the plaintiffs were with the company, which was at least as far back as 2003.

Even at that time, the control of a talent’s “likeness” was noted in this complaint. These issues were understood and challenged before the height of social media, and long before the interconnected digital media landscape we exist in today could even be comprehended.

Governmental regulation could go a long way to getting WWE to do right by their talent, as Ventura pointed out in his appearance on The Howard Stern Show, but that depends on people in government acting in the interests of the talent and not in the interest of Vince McMahon. As long as WWE Hall of Famer Donald Trump remains President of the United States, it’s unlikely his administration would do anything against McMahon.

Andrew Yang and Lea Thompson join the conversation

On the other side of the political spectrum, this most recent crackdown on using third parties was enough of a breaking point to catch the attention of Andrew Yang, a Democratic US Presidential Candidate for this current election cycle until he dropped out in February of 2020. Yang took to Twitter to criticize WWE classifying WWE talent as independent contractors and controlling their likeness.

Lea Thompson, an actor, director, and producer most known for starring as Lorraine Baines in the Back to the Future trilogy, responded to Yang’s tweet by saying “thank you for standing up for these folks.” David Bixenspan replied to Thompson, urging her to help SAG-AFTRA organize WWE talent, which Thompson enthusiastically responded to saying “absolutely!!!”

For those who don’t recognize the acronym, SAG-AFTRA is the Screen Actors Guild – American Federation of Television and Radio Artists. While the union has technically only existed since 2012, it was formed via merger when the two unions that date back to the 1930s merged. SAG-AFTRA is also a member of AFL-CIO (American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations), which is the largest federation of unions in the country.

While Yang’s direct influence on or as Secretary of Labor will hinge on who wins the 2020 US Presidential Election, the interest by Lea Thompson and potentially by SAG-AFTRA could be a pivotal turning point as the most recent actions by WWE could motivate talent to rally together and seriously look at unionization. WWE Hall of Famers Batista, Kevin Nash, and Mick Foley all spoke up about Vince McMahon’s Cameo crackdown.

Perhaps most importantly, current WWE superstar Xavier Woods seemed to directly acknowledge Andrew Yang’s comments on Twitter by tweeting “#JimmyYangGang” with a gif of former WWE superstar Jimmy Wang Yang. Woods relationship with the locker room, platform, intelligence, and ability to organize cannot be understated, as Tom Colohue noted Woods is the one person WWE “can not afford to piss off.”

It will be fascinating to watch the decisions that are made in the next 30 days as WWE superstars choose whether to alter their presences on Cameo or Twitch and fight against the edict by WWE, or if they simply comply and remove those accounts. In order to change things for the better, it will take more than a single person standing up to the company, but a majority is not needed.

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A crucial group, potentially led by or including Xavier Woods, could change the WWE forever and positively impact the professional lives of wrestlers all across the wrestling industry. It’s appalling that WWE and Vince McMahon have been able to exert this level of control and pressure on “independent contractors” for so long, but McMahon’s greediness, pettiness, and desperation for control may have finally led to the beginning of the end of his dictatorial reign.