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

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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