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Some months ago I got all hot for a project on professional wrestling as work, and attempts at unionization of wrestlers. I wrote a blog post about it here, and was all fired up to do a couple of different pieces – something for a popular sports magazine, to get the issue some light, something academic, and something concrete around the how-tos that could potentially help to re-kindle an organizing drive. As so often happens, however, the writing never really materialized, and the whole project sat hibernating in the back of my brain for some future date.

Well, a couple of days ago I decided it was time. I pulled up the blog post, saved it as a word document and started thinking on how I’d expand and re-write for the various audiences. And the very next day, out of the blue, my friend Colin phoned from Toronto. Colin’s doing labour law at U of T, and soon will be heading out to BC to article with the firm that represents the union I work for and a host of other faculty unions around the province. Colin, however, was calling with a whole other piece of news. He’s taking a course in sports law, and the prof has worked as counsel to that all-time fave wrestler of mine, Bret Hart. So, Colin’s planning a paper on the whole unionization of wrestlers thing that I had told him about, and wanted to let me know he’d get that to me in a few months so I’d have some legal work to use in my articles, or so we could put something together ourselves. He’s also particularly keen on doing something practical on the issue and trying to push this into some kind of unionization drive.

Funny how that works, how minds can just re-connect on a topic from so far away at exactly the same moment.

Anyway, from all of this, I’ve been thinking again on the wrestlers’ union thing, and finding myself thinking in particular about ‘The Wildman’ Marc Mero.

Marc Mero was never my favourite wrestler. He was skilled, no question. He was interesting to watch work in the ring, no question. But on the other side of the business – the character-development, story-line, entertainment side, Mero never really grabbed me. Hockey player, football player. and boxer, Mero moved into wrestling in the early 1990s, his major characters over the years being Johnny B Badd – a Little Richard knock-off; ‘Wildman’ Marc Mero – standard wrestler plus a little manic insanity; and ‘Marvelous’ Marc Mero – a hyper-jealous, hyper-arrogant a boxer-turned wrestler whose greatest triumph involved winning a match against his wife, whose increasing popularity shadowed his own, driving him insanely jealous. Yeah. that was indeed the storyline.

Marc Mero walked away from pro-wrestling in around 2005, mainly due to various injuries that could not heal properly while he continued to work. He opened a body-building and fitness studio in Florida, and has been there since.

But that’s all just background. What really matters is what else Marc Mero is doing.

When I was talking to Bret Hart, one of the last questions I asked him was who else I should speak to about working conditions in the industry and the whole question of unionization. He gave me a few names, but one comment stuck out in particular. “Talk to Marc Mero. The WWE [virtually monopolistic-wrestling corporation] still tolerates the rest of us, and we’re on decent terms despite our critcisms. But they hate Marc Mero, and have gone after him hard.”

Huh? marc Mero – really? Hadn’t heard his name come up at all before now. So what was the deal here? A visit to his training institute’s website, an email, and fifteen minutes later Marc is writing back keen to talk.

Apparently, after leaving the wrestling business, Marc Mero started getting real vocal about the industry’s rising death toll. And he pinned the blame squarely on the owners. The working conditions, the pressure for bigger bodies, the soul- and body-eating schedule of life on the road, the requirement to work through injuries. Wrestling, Mero said, was killing people left and right. Wrestling owners and promoters, he said, actively encouraged behaviour they knew to be life-threatening. Wrestling, he said, destroyed people, leaving them hurt, psychologically-damaged, and vicious. He pointed in particular to the murder-suicide of Chris Benoit – by all accounts just about the most professional and non-aggressive of wrestlers until years of steroid abuse fucked his brain so bad he murdered his wife and child before killing himself in a psychotic episode. Lots of wrestlers spoke about it, lamenting the tragedy, many indeed taking about ‘roid rage and the impact of abuse of performance-enhancing drugs. But Mero pointed more directly to the industry and the owners, and placed the blame squarely on their shoulders.

And loud. He started getting on every TV show and radio program he could. He talked about the kind of masculinity wrestling encouraged. He talked about the culture of violence. He talked about the drugs as a job requirement. And not content to make his case to newscasters and policy-makers, Mero went straight to the heart of the wrestling industry’s market. Mero went to kids.

Entirely on his own dime, Marc Mero put out the call that he would visit any school that would have him to talk about body image, drugs, masculinity, violence, and wrestling. Now, officially, it’s all billed as a positive-choice, anti-steroid message. But talk to Marc for a few minutes, and it’s pretty damn clear that there’s alot more going on here, and that it’s this work with kids that is precisely what has the wrestling business so pissed off. Because as far as he’s concerned, ‘making positive choices’ is about rejecting the cultural values wrestling promotes. Because talking about steroids means talking about masculinity, violence, working conditions.

Marc Mero was the first wrestler in the WWE to get a guaranteed annual contract rather than getting paid on the basis of a share of the door. Since he managed that, others pushed for the same, and a significant part of the industry has now shifted as a result. Marc Mero isn’t on a union drive, but when I asked him about unions he’s enthusiastic, and eager to do what he can. So there’s some politics here, and some experience in tackling working conditions.

But mostly, Marc Mero is just spending his time and money talking to kids, one by one doing his thing to counter the industry that he was part of so long and that has taken so many of his friends in the last few years. Mostly Marc Mero is just talking loud – to adults about drug-induced psychosis, corporate responsibility for deaths in the ring and out, and the need for regulation and oversight of an industry that is shaping culture in profoundly dangerous ways. And talking, too, to kids – about steroids and self-worth and the difference between healthy and unhealthy competition and bodies and masculinity and the ability to make choices. And though those are words that on first blush appear the most motherhood-and-apple-pie, though those are messages that initially appear indistinguishable from every self-help book on the shelves, they are also the words that have the wrestling industry most on the ropes. And that’s pretty fucking interesting to me.

Cause it’s part of the same struggle waged by the Jesse Venturas, the Konnans, the Bret Harts, to collectivize, to transform working conditions, to go union. But it’s waged on a whole other terrain – hitting hearts and minds of the kids who are the market today, and the cannon-fodder tomorrow. And it’s the one thing the owners can’t turn into a gimmick, can’t package and re-sell.

Reminds me, funny enough, of Pete Seeger. Black-listed for his socialist politics during the McCarthy era, Seeger decided if he couldn’t sing to adults about strikes and struggles, he’d sing to kids about seemingly-innucuous things – all flowers and peace and love. But when you look back on his career, it was that work – that going out to kids with pretty simple messages – that had the greatest political impact. He didn’t know that when he started. It wasn’t apparent in the words he sang. But it mattered, and lasted.

Now, I don’t expect Mero knows that. In fact, Mero may not even have any fucking idea who Pete Seeger is. But seems the owners know that kids count. Alot. Cause while kids don’t make policy, they sure as hell make culture.

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We didn’t watch much TV when I was a kid. An old Sears black and white, 14 inch screen and no cable would’ve kept us pretty limited even without the strict parental controls -one hour per week plus all the news you want. Every now and then, though, mom and dad would be out on a Saturday afternoon, and my brother Dennis would twist the rabbit-ears around to get access to something besides the CBC – Stampede Wrestling, out of Calgary.

Stampede fucking Wrestling. That was the shit. A family operation, run by Stu Hart and peopled by his many many sons who dominated the roster of referees and wrestlers. (The daughters would all marry wrestlers.) Bruce Hart, Keith Hart, Wayne Hart, Smith Hart, Dean Hart, Ross Hart, Owen Hart, and the one who would one day be the most-recognized Canadian in the world – Bret Hart, champion of champions, second only to Hulk Hogan as public symbol of the wrestling world, and second to absolutely none in that world, recognized for his skills, his storytelling in the ring, his professionalism, his commitment not just to the sport but the subculture.

I loved wrestling because I loved Bret Hart. Without him, I quickly lost interest.

So there I was one November morning, sitting in the Ottawa airport after a weekend of union meetings, dreading the flight home. I browse the little bookshop and find, lined up on special display, Bret ‘s autobiography, Hitman. What the hell, I think. It’ll take me back, and provide some good time-wasting shlock for the trip to Vancouver.

Wow. What a fucking book.

Most of it is pretty standard autobiography, and what you would expect of an entertainer/ athlete, though better-written and more reflective, I think, than most. But what I really noted as I read through was an underlying political sensitivity that I was not expecting. In talking about tours in India, the focus is the starkness of inequality, the splendour of the Taj Mahal amidst a sea of homelessness. In Northern Ireland, the centrepiece is the cab driver who points out sites of noted police brutality and the security officer most notorious for beating the shit out of Catholics. In Isreal and Palestine it’s the Palestinian kids who follow the bus on their bikes who merit the most attention.

Now I’m not pretending here that this is a book about oppression or struggle, nor that Bret Hart is a radical. But these are not the sort of things one sees in these kinds of memoirs generally, and there was just enough here to make me take note.

But what really stood out was the discussion of wrestling as work. Training and the lack thereof, health and safety, salaries and working conditions, and the transfomation of the industry from a network of family-based operations to an international financial heavyweight, based entirely around one company, reaching into every corner of the globe, listed on the New York Stock Exchange. And a site, apparently, of pitched struggles for unionization.

Holy shit. This is something.

Bret talks about attempts by wrestlers to organize, the most significant campaign taking place in the 1980s in the World Wrestling Federation and under the leadership of later-Minnesota Governor Jesse Ventura – a campaign that by many sources only failed when Hulk Hogan ratted the plan out to owner Vince McMahon. Ventura and a few other key figures (though minor wrestlers) were promptly fired. But the idea never died, and would break to the surface on a number of occasions over the next couple of decades.

Why would wrestlers want a union? Well, here’s what I’ve learned after a little research.

Average salary for a pro wrestler who’s on TV every week – $35,000 – $45,000 a year. Subtract from that the fact that wrestlers often pay their own traveling expenses, hotels, food and US health care premiums. Not a hell of alot left to retire on when a good pro career is about five years, an exceptional one ten to fifteen.

Wrestlers are 6 times more likely to die before age 40 than the general population. Ah, the steroids you say. No. Pro football players are just as likely to abuse steroids, but their pre-40 mortality is significantly lower than average. In fact, compare wrestlers to footballers and the former are 20 times more likely to die by 40. Yeah, thats right – 20 fucking times.

Wrestlers are not considered ’employees’ of the companies they work for. They are classified as independent contractors, which explains why they are so often responsible for their own employment costs from travel to costumes. And the first step to any unionization is a change in status, and a recognition of the employment relationship.

Wrestlers can’t catch a regulatory break. Actors’ unions consider them athletes, and don’t cover them, though they do represent announcers on the programs. Athletic commissions aren’t responsible any longer, since the industry outed itself as “entertainment” rather than sport in the early 1990s as a way to avoid government oversight and certain taxes.

And the wrestlers? They tell an interesting story about this last item. When the wrestling industry kept up the illusion that it was all for real, the public came to to watch wrestling – choreographed, yes, but basically real wrestling comprised of holds, pins and the occasional leap off a ring-rope. Once the veil is taken away, no one is content to watch a 2 minute headlock anymore – there’s no contest here, so the public shows up for a different kind of entertainment value – chairs to the head, blood-letting, crashes through tables from as much as 20 feet. In short, the public demands stunts, and they demand those stunts to be not simulated but real. All of a sudden an industry that was already dangerous but at least peopled by well-trained athletes whose bottom line was ‘take care of each other in there’ is a circus of stunts and competition among the biggest bodies, with the few real technical experts – the Bret Harts of the world – a vanishing breed.

Athletics to circus-stunts, technique to body-building, a few days travel a month to whole lives lived in hotels, self-medication for depression, loneliness, physical pain, exhaustion, and a steady increase in deaths resulting from the combination. Run through a roster of wrestling deaths in the last 15 years and you’ll be stunned at the numbers – indeed, at a point it becomes more surprising that some of them are still alive.

Anyway, I read Bret’s book, I’m fascinated and I want to know more. An email to the host of his website, some brief correspondence back and forth and I’m ready for an interview with the Hitman.

God, that was a day. I was buzzing, the whole office was buzzing, waiting for the phone call. And then, an hour and a half of questions and answers, some names of other wrestlers and commentators, and I was off on a new project.

Why am I writing about this now? Well, a few reasons I suppose. One, I think this is really fucking important, and has the potential to raise awareness around unions generally – if some of the top wrestlers and youth heroes of the day start talking union, that can have a tremendous impact on public sentiment toward worker’s struggles more generally. Two, it’s been a few months now, and after an initial flurry of interviews and note-taking, I’ve fallen out of the work lately, and hope this might get me back in line, or at least provide the basis for one of the articles I have planned (the goal being a popular piece and an academic one). Third, I think it’s worth telling people what I’ve learned, that there is so much more to wrestling than the shit we see every day.

There’s a microcosm of the more generalized conflict between workers and capital. There’s a hell of alot of courage and athleticism, particularly as one looks farther back historically. There’s big-time union politics, corporate politics, state politics. There’s questions about heroism and folly, masculinity and strength. And there’s spin-doctoring like nowhere else – case in point, when tensions resurfaced after the death of Bret’s brother, Owen, as a result of a stupid stunt he was ordered to perform, the company made the workers’ discontent and public criticism into part of the show, a gimmick featuring the evil owner and his cronies “The Corporate Ministry” versus the rough-and-tumble good’ol boys, “The Union”. Yeah, if that isn’t the society of the spectacle I don’t know what is.

There’s a hell of alot here. And most exciting for me, it’s not academics watching it and making up this shit. This is all straight from the wrestlers who produce it, who know what kind of boss they’re facing, who know the difficulties getting workers to stand collectively as a class, who are themselves afraid of the kind of masculinity they promote, who watch friends die weekly and just pray they can get out before the same happens to them.

And Bret Hart? He was named one of the greatest 50 Canadians of all time on that big CBC project a couple of years ago. After a devastating stroke and nearly ten years since he wrestled regularly, he can still walk into a classroom or gymnasium anywhere the world and be the kind of a hero he always wanted to be. And he quite frankly gave me one of the best conversations of my life, and a whole new area of research to explore.

Oh, by the way: at the top of this post you’ll see the insignia of The Union of Independent Professional Wrestlers. Not a union, but a company, whose whole promotion is based on the conflict between workers and bosses. The gimmick lives on, yes. But that gives me hope, too. Cause gimmicks only work if they resonate somewhere, if they play on tensions and struggles that still ring true.

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