Last month, the National Labor Relations Board planned to dismiss the complaint filed by former UFC bantamweight Leslie Smith. The former fighter claims that the mixed martial arts promotional company has misclassified fighters as independent contractors and the decision to forgo renewing her contract was retaliation for her involvement in Project Spearhead.
Project Spearhead was formed by former fighters, like Smith, the interim president, with the purpose of securing employee classification for fighters in the UFC circuit in addition to establishing a fighters union. One of the first steps was having 30 percent of the total workforce, around 200 fighters, sign authorization cards to declare intent to form a union. Once complete, they can begin to rework the relationship between fighters and management with an assurance they won’t be blackballed by the promotion company. In its current state, contracts are negotiated where the UFC agrees to pay a certain amount per fight and obtains exclusive rights for that fighter throughout the duration of said contract, which is on average five bouts. The UFC will insert language allowing them to terminate a contract before completion if the fighter loses multiple fights in succession, or generally gets on Dana White’s bad side (more on later). The average fighter contract length is about 1½ years or 3.3 bouts according to Combat Sports Law. Meaning countless fighters run the risk of being cut, bodies bruised and left picking up the check if they underperform, and potentially blackballed if they even mention unions.
Liz Mullen of Sports Business Journal reports on the National Labor Relations Board dismissal of Smith’s unfair labor practices charge against the UFC but did not decide whether she was an employee. In the charge, Smith alleged that the UFC violated federal law protecting employees who engage in union activity when it terminated her contract on April 20. Dennis Walsh, the NLRB’s director for Region 4, decided last month that although there was “ample evidence” that Smith publicly engaged in efforts to unionize UFC fighters, there was “insufficient evidence” that the UFC’s decision not to renew her contract was based on her union activity. Walsh adds that since no discriminatory action was determined; ruling on Smith’s classification as a “statutory employee” was unnecessary.
The decision is a significant setback for Smith and Project Spearhead; when asked how the NLRB decision affects the unionization push, Lucas Middlebrook, attorney representing Smith, said frankly, “It certainly doesn’t help it.” But as the group appeals the decision and collect authorization cards another cadre is hopeful Smith will prevail. The “Superstar” athletes of World Wrestling Entertainment, WWE, have long been locked in a test of strength with management on issues of fair compensation, health care, pensions and covering travel expenses to highlight some of the issues. Like their counterparts in the UFC, WWE Superstars fear retaliation from management if they don’t follow the unwritten rules of the business, and even talking about a union representation is taboo. Both Dana White, and WWE Chairman Vince McMahon run their respective organizations with an iron fist, having absolute control of the product in the ring is critical to their success. By refusing to classify their fighters as employees, they save millions in health care, wages, and can cut their losses with personalities they deem subversive to the company’s image.
While a significant setback for Project Spearhead, this does not spell the end of the road for their goal of obtaining employee status for UFC fighters. Smith is planning to appeal the case, stating the courts mischaracterized the circumstances surrounding her departure from the UFC. As Project Spearhead continues to collect authorization cards they hope growing coverage within the fighting community will lead to the UFC acknowledging their claims, though very unlikely.
For Liz Mullen’s full coverage of the Smith v. UFC follow the link here.