John Cena and the Dark Side of the Force

John Cena, a Villain?

On WWE and Organized Labor

After Hell in a Cell, a renewed call for professional wrestlers to unionize

Back in May 1999, the WWF had a mock-labor uprising on Monday-night Raw. The members of the Corporate Ministry were in the ring, filling it roughly from rope to rope. It was a valedictory moment for the new diabolical faction, which had formed just four days earlier, an unholy amalgamation of the Undertaker’s pseudosatanic Ministry of Darkness and Shane McMahon’s Corporation. They were interrupted, as in-ring oratories so often are, by four familiar faces: Mick “Mankind” Foley, The Big Show, Test, and Ken Shamrock, all former associates of the Corporation.

They each held an oversized two-by-four — more a blue-collar metaphor than a physical threat — and announced the formation of an opposition group called the Union.1 Their beef was not strictly physical; yes, they wanted to beat up the Corporate Ministry, but the Union’s complaint was broader. Since the Corporation had formed, its members had been mistreating their foes and steering opportunities toward cronies. Now, by negotiating a merger with Undertaker’s Ministry, the new faction looked like it could dominate WWF matchmaking for the foreseeable future. The Union’s goal wasn’t just to settle a fight, but also to keep its members’ jobs.

One might see something odd about protesting against owner tampering in a company that is largely defined by it. But, of course, the Union was only a storyline.

Who knows what events in (real-life) labor relations inspired wrestling writers to go all Marxist, but the on-screen “movement” landed with a thud. The Union feuded with lesser members of the Corporate Ministry while bigger stars The Rock and “Stone Cold” Steve Austin remained above the fray. Before long, the entire storyline was scrapped after Foley went out with an injury. That the story was even allowed to exist, however, is shocking. The wrestling industry has never seen — nor permitted — any form of unionization by the talent.

Despite the fact that WWE wrestlers are, by definition, full-time employees, WWE designates them as independent contractors. This is “so they don’t have to pay social security and the wrestler has to pay 15 percent self-employment tax,” former WWF mainstay Jesse “The Body” Ventura told Howard Stern last year. “How are they self-employed when you’re signed exclusively, you can’t work for nobody else, they tell you when and where you’ll work? They can totally control your life, and yet they’ll call you an independent contractor.” To some degree, wrestlers’ contracts are this way for historical reasons — in the territorial era of the 1970s and ’80s, wrestlers were indeed independent contractors and operated as such, but the WWF/E absorbed that template when it expanded its territory nation- and worldwide. Now, there’s no doubt that wrestlers’ status as “independent contractors” should be seen as a capitalist strong-arm tactic. WWE and its shareholders are surely aware that they’re no longer operating a regional sideshow. Likewise, they’re aware, if not by common sense then by the writ of their own contracts, that the wrestlers they employ are not “independent contractors” any more than LeBron James or Peyton Manning are independent contractors for the Miami Heat and Indianapolis Colts.

Monday night, at the close of Raw, on-screen chief operating officer Triple H stood in the center of the ring to address his employees and, in a comically formal proceeding, request their vote of confidence. The preceding months had been more than a little unruly. First, CM Punk walked away from the company and took the championship belt with him, only to return and feud with the COO. Then, Triple H watched limply as his underling, John Laurinaitis, usurped his control; he was threatened with a lawsuit from a gang of disgruntled, midcard heels;2 and he was unable to control Kevin Nash’s unsanctioned onslaughts. Even after Triple H finally stood strong and fired upstarts Miz and R-Truth for interfering in a match, the twosome intervened after Sunday’s Hell in a Cell main event, laying siege to the ring and beating John Cena, CM Punk, and Alberto Del Rio, along with the referees and cameramen.

On Monday, despite Triple H’s insistence that he was working with the audience’s best interests in mind, each nominal faction of on-screen talent — the good guys, the bad guys, the female wrestlers, the referees — explained that they felt their workplace had become unsafe under Triple H’s leadership. After erstwhile announcer Jerry “the King” Lawler (who had been pancaked through a table by Mark Henry a couple of weeks before) said his piece, he formally walked out on his “boss,” and was followed by the wrestlers, the announcers, and the ringside cameramen.3 Triple H was even abandoned, in the end, by announcer Jim Ross, whom the COO had reinstated only weeks before. Ross later explained his decision on Twitter by saying, “When a coach loses his locker room, something has 2 b done.”

Ross is a wrestling legend, and he has ascended to his station not just by being a top-notch commentator, but also by advancing the storylines that the powers that be instruct him to.4 He’s a company man through and through and a former WWF executive, and his exit from ringside stung the most.

Not that it matters in real life. Just as with the Union years ago, the walkout was a remarkably liberal on-screen performance in an industry fully controlled by right-leaning, antiregulation capitalists.

Notably absent from Monday’s egalitarian proceedings were the headline good guys — Cena, Punk, Randy Orton, Sheamus, and Kelly Kelly.5 This was probably deliberate, and will be explained in future episodes. But it’s hard not to notice the similarities between this development and the Union years before, when, despite a common foe in the Corporate Ministry, The Rock and Austin didn’t associate themselves with the Union. They were already situated atop wrestling’s pecking order, and factions like the Union would serve only to elevate less-prominent performers. As is often the case in real life, the top dogs felt little need to unionize. The Rock and Austin occasionally banded together with the Union in their mutual in-ring concern — that of pummeling the Corporate Ministry — but found no common cause with the Union’s plea for better working conditions.

For all the on-screen labor unrest, however, the real wrestling industry hasn’t faced a serious unionization threat. Jesse Ventura tried to organize a union in the 1980s6 but, according to the New York Times, “found it hard to find wrestlers willing to join him.” When he later sued the WWF to reclaim royalties he thought were owed him (Ventura eventually won a more than $800,000 judgment), it was revealed in the proceedings that Hulk Hogan ratted out his union scheme to Vince McMahon. It’s hard to imagine a more blatant example of a top star protecting his status by sabotaging collective action.

In 2008, three wrestlers — Raven, Chris Kanyon, and Mike Sanders7sued WWE for “cheating them out of health care and other benefits” and insisted that the “independent contractor” designation was a sham since WWE had “virtually complete dominion and control over its wrestlers.” A federal judge threw out the case, supposedly because the statute of limitations had expired, but this case, and others over time, have proven that WWE has little to fear from legal proceedings.

Raven and company were essentially blackballed for turning on their employer, but at least their case brought the issue to light. While promoting The Wrestler, director Darren Aronofsky spoke at length about pro wrestling’s labor issues. “The problem starts with the fact that they’re not organized and they’re not unionized,” he said. “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. … 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 health insurance and they should be protected.”

Former longtime WWF champ Bret Hart has become a vocal pro-union voice in recent years. “I don’t think that wrestlers will get any type of support until they get a union,” he has said. “I think that any wrestler that says that they don’t need a union is just a sheep that doesn’t have enough brains to know that they do need a union.”

The Miz and R-Truth, for their part, were contrite about their actions at Hell in a Cell. In a YouTube video aired “exclusively” on Raw, they apologized for their actions, but insisted that they did only what Triple H or any other wrestler would have done under similar circumstances. Left out of WWE’s predominant storylines, they strong-armed their way back to relevance.8 The Miz and R-Truth’s unemployment is fictional, of course, but the motive behind their behavior rings true — they are willing to break the law to protect their livelihoods. They have no other choice; without WWE, they have severely limited options. They could go to second-tier rival TNA Wrestling or to Ring of Honor or to Mexico or Japan, but any of those would mean a major cut in pay and notoriety. To discuss WWE as a borderline monopoly is no overstatement, and that’s all the more reason to take seriously the plight of its workforce.

When John Cena appeared on Larry King Live in 2007, King asked if he thought wrestling needed a union. Unsurprisingly, Cena demurred: “I believe that professional wrestlers, WWE-specific and across, they all know what they’re getting into. Nobody is forcing them to get into the ring. It’s a job that they all want to do.” According to Cena, the question of unionization “won’t ever be answered, because I don’t think it’ll ever be asked.”

Well, at least not in real life.

The Masked Man is David Shoemaker, author of the “Dead Wrestler of the Week” column. You can follow him on Twitter at @AKATheMaskedMan.

Previously from The Masked Man:

A Brief History of Hell (In a Cell)
WWE Conspiracy Theories
Night of Champions Preview
SummerSlam and the new WWE champion
John Cena, a Villain? The Masked Man’s SummerSlam Preview

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Filed Under: General topics, History, Movies, Sports, Ted, Wrestling, WWE

David Shoemaker , also known as “The Masked Man,” is the author of the The Squared Circle: Life, Death, and Pro Wrestling.

Archive @ AKATheMaskedMan