Friday, 5 July 2013

Fighting for Collective Bargaining Rights

In the past decade mixed martial arts fighting (MMA) has become a phenomenon in the sports world and a veritable juggernaut for pay-per view ratings, with the Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) being the largest and most renowned MMA organization.

Pay-per view events generate huge revenues for sports organizations. Boxing has become well-known for garnering massive pay-per view revenues and, since 2009, the UFC pay-per view ratings have eclipsed even those of boxing. Boxers earn gigantic sums of money for these fights. UFC fighters are significantly less fortunate. How to explain the difference? Boxers and other sports figures are protected by legislation and via professional associations. These protections often set a minimum level of compensation and treatment the athletes can expect. UFC athletes, on the other hand, are essentially left to their own devices.

According to Bleacher Report, when famed boxer, Floyd Mayweather, fought Robert Guerrero earlier this year, Mayweather reportedly earned $32 million for the fight. Headlining fighters from the MMA are suspected to earn far less than that. While the UFC is notoriously secretive about the earnings of its fighters, it has been reported that Georges St-Pierre, the Welterweight Champion of the UFC and one of the sport’s top draws, earns somewhere in the neighbourhood of $4 - $5 million per fight. That may sound like a lot of money, and it is, but compared to the earnings of a boxer like Mayweather, it’s somewhere between 12.5% and 15.6% of Mayweather’s earnings.

And it’s far worse for fighters who aren’t the “stars” of MMA. These fighters earn a mere fraction of the salaries of the larger names in the sport, scraping by on whatever they can get. This situation is unfair to the lower-level fighters, who submit themselves to physical punishment for paycheques that may not even allow them to cover their rent for the year. The bigger names recognize this and have shown support for the lesser stars, speaking out about the inequality in their sport.

Dana White, CEO and President of the UFC has responded in a manner that may remind workers from any industry of employer threats and reprisals. White said: “You guys don’t like the structure? All right, we’ll pay the lower-level guys more money –no more f---ing bonuses.”

Bloomberg Business Week reports that White’s comments reveal the plight of fighters in a grueling sport without collective bargaining rights[1]. White has suggested the players can come in and negotiate their own contracts and the UFC will simply get rid of the bonuses some fighters get on fight nights. The fighters are essentially treated like independent contractors instead of employees. There is no floor to a fighter’s earnings, and of course White’s suggestion could only harm the fighters and benefit their employer, the UFC.

Zev Eigen, a law professor at Northwestern University, has had a rare chance to view one of the contracts the UFC, through its parent company Zuffa, offers to fighters. Eigen notes the contract is drafted to favour Zuffa, with little regard for the fair and equitable treatment of the fighters. Eigen chalks such one-sided contracts up to a lack of union representation: “none of these fighters are represented by a professional association or a union. There’s nothing that sets a minimum or basic standard below which the company can’t go.”

Eigen then picks up on the same dangers wrought by a gross power imbalance between workers and employers that inspired the Rand Formula. Eigen highlights the importance of unions and collective bargaining when he states:

It makes sense – in any relationship like this you would expect the contract to favor the more powerful actor. This should be intuitive and it’s universal. If you’re contracting with Apple, you shouldn’t be surprised that Apple takes as many rights as possible. If you use iTunes in any way they don’t like, hell, fire will rain down on you. That’s what you can expect anytime you’re contracting with an entity more powerful than you are[2].

A former manager to a UFC star echoes Eigen’s sentiments, asserting that the company profits while fighters get exploited. This, he notes, is made possible because fighters “don’t have a voice”[3].

MMA fighters may be testaments to toughness and human endurance, but without a union and the protections of solidarity, they are just as vulnerable to maltreatment and exploitation as any other worker outside of organized labour.

These fighters are a reminder of what happens when workers are isolated and unable to rise up with one voice to demand better working conditions. They are a compact example of the inherent inequity of right to work laws, which tilt the balance of power in favour of the employer and set in motion a terrible race to the bottom. While it’s true that MMA may not be the first thing to come to mind when thinking of collective bargaining rights, it clearly shows that unions are crucial to the equitable treatment of workers no matter which industry they’re in. The fighters show that unions are just as vital now as they ever were – because no matter how hard you can hit, without organized labour backing you up, the employer will always be able to hit harder. As critics of the UFC point out, if the fighters want fair pay and better working conditions, they must “embrace collective bargaining and leverage a greater share of the profits.”[4]

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