UFC fighters make union push
Leslie Smith is leading a new effort to unionize UFC fighters and is hopeful it will be different this time.
Smith, who fights in the bantamweight division, is one of three UFC fighters who last month unveiled Project Spearhead, a group that is trying to unionize the sport. Project Spearhead is gathering authorization cards to form a union to represent UFC fighters.
It is the fourth group to try to unionize UFC fighters in the last few years.
“This effort is already different than the other efforts because it is by the fighters, for the fighters, and it is all going to be democratically voted on,” Smith said. “There’s no outside influences, no outside money.”
Other efforts failed in the past for a variety of reasons.
In August 2016, MLB player agent Jeff Borris launched the Professional Fighters Association, a group that also sought union status. Smith was a part of the PFA but left that group after having a falling out with Borris.
The PFA is no longer active. “I haven’t done anything in about a year,” Borris said in an email.
In December 2016, Bjorn Rebney, the founder and former chairman and CEO of Bellator MMA, launched the Mixed Martial Arts Athletes Association with a star-studded press conference, which included Georges St-Pierre and Donald “Cowboy” Cerrone as founding members.
But the MMAAA does not appear to be active anymore. Although it has a website, the phone number listed is out of service. Rebney did not return inquiries for this story.
The MMA Fighters Association has been around for many years but is a trade association, not a union that collectively bargains terms and conditions for workers. Some of the organizers of the MMAFA, which is still in existence, are part of an antitrust lawsuit that has been filed against the UFC. The group is also seeking to extend the protections of the federal Muhammad Ali Boxing Reform Act to MMA fighters.
In addition to Smith, two other UFC fighters, Al Iaquinta and Kajan Johnson, have publicly lent their names to Project Spearhead.
“For me personally, we just don’t have a voice at the table,” Johnson said. “Decisions are being made over our heads that affect us directly and a lot of times in a negative way.”
Smith is the interim president, Johnson is interim vice president and Iaquinta is interim secretary/treasurer. The positions are interim for now so fighters can vote on leaders in the future.
Having fighters under contract with the UFC publicly attaching their names to the effort is a good thing, said Lucas Middlebrook, a labor attorney who is serving as outside counsel to Project Spearhead.
“It is helpful to have fighters publicly announce support because it implicitly signifies to other fighters who may fear retribution for engaging in the process that they can sign a card or become involved without negative repercussions,” Middlebrook said.
“One of the biggest hurdles in organizing this group is the fear of retribution from the UFC,” Middlebrook said. Fighters have expressed concerns about the potential of retaliation, Middlebrook said, although he could not offer any examples.
This is not Middlebrook’s first foray into sports unionization. Like Smith, he was involved with Borris’ PFA but left that group with Smith. Middlebrook also has been involved in union organizing and collective bargaining for several unions and is outside counsel to the National Basketball Referees Association and the Professional Soccer Referees Association.
Another roadblock for unionization of MMA fighters is the fact that the UFC classifies them as independent contractors. Independent contractors cannot form a union, but Middlebrook says they’ve been misclassified. That’s something he intends to take up with the National Labor Relations Board.
“I’ve told Leslie, ‘Let’s take this step by step,’” Middlebrook said. “And the first step is let’s collect enough authorization cards to get our foot in the door with the National Labor Relations Board.”
In order for the NLRB to look at the issue, Project Spearhead must collect cards from fighters representing 30 percent of the UFC roster, or roughly 200 of the organization’s more than 600 fighters. That will give the group what is known as “a showing of interest,” which will meet the threshold for the NLRB to determine whether or not the fighters are employees. Project Spearhead was launched in February and the group has a year to collect the necessary cards.
The board looks at 10 or 11 factors in making the determination, including control over the worker and the ability to discharge the worker. If the NLRB determines UFC fighters are employees, Project Spearhead can vote to form a union.
It would probably take the NLRB three to six months to determine whether fighters are employees, Middlebrook said. If they are determined to be employees, it would take another two to three months to hold an election to form a union. It takes a simple majority to create a union, Middlebrook said.
Smith is hopeful that the NLRB won’t have to decide the question of whether MMA fighters are employees. The UFC is a different organization since Hollywood agency Endeavor, which was formerly known as WME-IMG, bought it for $4.2 billion in 2016, she noted. The Hollywood agency invited many UFC fighters, including Smith, to an athlete retreat in Las Vegas last May to get to know them.
“The UFC is now owned by WME-IMG and they represent a lot of high-level actors and actresses,” she said. “Actors on that level are all unionized.”
Smith said she is hopeful that under the new ownership the UFC would “be amenable to voluntarily recognize us.”
“That would be ideal,” she added.
Endeavor declined to comment.
Middlebrook said that although that’s possible, he’s not optimistic it will happen. He is optimistic, however, about the response that Project Spearhead has received based on the number of authorization cards it’s already collected. Although he would not share how many they’ve received, Middlebrook said, “It’s more than we collected with the Professional Fighters Association.”