Union Busting

By Patrick Auger May 22, 2019
After fighting for three years as a professional on the regional circuit, Cole Smith got the call to debut in the Ultimate Fighting Championship. He faced Mitch Gagnon at UFC Fight Night 151 on May 4 in Ottawa, Ontario, and went on to win by unanimous decision. During the post-fight scrum, he answered the usual questions, but his outspokenness on one particular issue -- fighter pay -- stood out.

“This sport sucks, man,” Smith said. “It’s bulls--- that someone in the NBA who doesn’t even touch the court is getting 600 grand, while I’m out here fighting my ass off, and I’m getting 10 [grand].”

It’s a sentiment shared by several of his colleagues, especially those new to the UFC. The promotion is almost universally viewed as the premier mixed martial arts organization, and having your competition level increase substantially without a commensurate increase in pay is a tough pill to swallow for many fighters who sign on with the company. Even top contenders in the UFC are often only guaranteed a purse that comes in under six figures, with a victory in the cage and subsequent win bonus pushing them past that threshold.

In an effort to bring about change, multiple groups formed to create an MMA union so that fighter concerns about pay, healthcare and retirement could be heard. The hope was that one of these factions would lead to something similar in the player’s associations found in most major sports, associations that have made huge strides over the years for athletes’ rights and compensation. Although the majority of these efforts have proved fruitless or dissolved rather quickly, one entity has endured to become the flagship organization for fighter collective bargaining: Project Spearhead.

Headed by UFC veteran and current Bellator MMA fighter Leslie Smith, Project Spearhead has been working over the past year to collect signed authorization cards from fighters in the UFC. Once 30 percent -- or roughly 150 fighters -- have signed, Project Spearhead can submit them to the National Labor Relations Board, which could then review the UFC’s practices to determine if fighters should be classified as employees or independent contractors. If the NLRB classifies UFC athletes as employees, then they’d be eligible for benefits, lost wages and be able to legally start a union.

As one might expect, Project Spearhead has certainly put a target on some of its known members’ backs. While UFC President Dana White has stated publicly that he doesn’t care if fighters unionize, some of the company’s actions have been perceived as anti-union. Smith was released from the promotion after her opponent missed weight and she refused the bout, with the company paying out her show money and win bonus before declaring her contract fulfilled. Kajan Johnson, Project Spearhead’s interim vice president, did not have his contract renewed by the UFC despite a strong performance after a controversial split decision loss in September. Johnson cited his involvement with the group as a possible reason he was made a free agent.

Smith filed a complaint with the NLRB against the UFC for her releasing her from her contract, but it was dismissed in September on the grounds that the charge against the promotion lacked merit. According to the 36-year old, that decision brought Project Spearhead to a screeching halt.

“The cards were coming in, and when I got cut [from the UFC], that slowed down to a trickle,” Smith said in an interview on Sirius XM radio’s MMA Tonight show. “The strings got pulled, and my case got dismissed. I didn’t win, and that seems to be a real big deal with fighters, whether or not you win.”

Smith went on to point out that the general counsel of the NLRB is Trump appointee Peter Robb, a labor attorney who has spent the majority of his career representing management in labor cases, including the Reagan Administration’s litigation against an air traffic controllers’ union that went on strike back in 1981. Right now, “The Peacemaker” feels as though not much can be done under the current administration.

“[Robb]’s made quite a few different steps already since his time inside the [NLRB] that are not pro-labor, that are not pro-union,” she said. “When they didn’t really protect us, when they took the management side basically by dismissing the charges, it made a bunch of fighters not as excited about joining a team that wasn’t winning. It almost makes more sense to wait until a different administration to make another push.”

Smith might be right in that assumption. On May 14, the NLRB handed down an important decision that classified Uber drivers as contractors instead of employees. While the ride-sharing service is not exactly cage fighting, it does mean that that the NLRB will take the position that workers for companies such as Uber will not be able to legally form a union -- a stark reversal from positions taken by the board during the Obama Administration. In the event that Project Spearhead manages to secure the authorization cards needed to move forward, fighters’ chances of being classified as employees seem to be slim given the decision.

Though things might sound bleak for fighters that want unionization, Smith and others are still pushing for change. The former UFC bantamweight has enrolled in the Labor and Employee Relations program at Rutgers University, hoping to educate herself and her fellow fighters about the benefits of forming a union. While she cannot give a timetable, Smith believes the situation will eventually change.

“I don’t know how long it’s going to take, but hopefully the longer that it takes, the better off that it’s going to be,” she said, “but inevitably, it is going to get better. That’s what I’ve got to hold on to; that’s what I have to remind myself.”

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