David Starr, who has worked for prominent independent wrestling promotions throughout the United States and Europe, and who has been an outspoken proponent of unionizing within wrestling and a critic of WWE’s labor practices, was pressured out of two prominent European promotions by WWE, according to Dave Meltzer of the Wrestling Observer. Starr is no longer working with the British promotion Progress or Germany’s wXw, both of which featured him as a top star, and both of which have working arrangements with WWE that allow them to book wrestlers contracted to WWE’s NXT U.K. promotion.
Starr has become the most prominent active wrestler openly calling for a union today. He’s the co-founder of We the Independent, whose aim is to raise awareness about labor issues in wrestling and inform independent contractors of their rights and the options available to them. Starr and We the Independent have been urging wrestling promotions to work with the British-based theater and performance trade union Equity; so far two British indies, EVE and Riot Cabaret, have signed on to Equity’s negotiated code of conduct policy.
The wrestling industry has historically been heavily opposed to unionization. The only notable attempt at creating a wrestler’s union in America was undertaken by a so-called “outlaw” startup promotion in Georgia in the 1970s, the International Wrestling League. It faced stiff competition and underhanded tactics from the established Georgia Championship Wrestling and other NWA-affiliated territories, and didn’t last long. WWE, the dominant force in the business over the last 35 years, and its owner Vince McMahon have been staunchly anti-union all along. In the territorial days, wrestlers were true independent contractors, traveling from territory to territory and negotiating their own deals with different promoters; McMahon kept that template in place when he went national in the 1980s, continuing to classify his wrestlers as independent contractors, even though they were contracted, full-time employees whose schedules were fully controlled by their employer. That continues to this day, and every major American wrestling company since has followed suit, including AEW, the year-old upstart that has posed WWE’s most significant domestic competition in many years, and Ring of Honor, whose corporate owner, Sinclair Broadcasting, is a multi-billion dollar media company.
If wrestlers banded together to unionize, as athletes in every major professional sport have done, it would inevitably cost companies like WWE a lot of money. Even though David Starr has never worked for WWE, it seems like McMahon’s company has taken note of the wrestler’s labor advocacy. As Meltzer writes in this week’s issue of the Observer, “the belief is that WWE pressured the companies that they have working agreements with to no longer use Starr was [sic] because of his pro-union voice and attempts in the U.K. to get wrestlers to join the Equity union, the trade union for performers, similar to SAG in the U.S.”
Based on Meltzer’s reporting, here’s a company with television deals throughout the world and a market cap that’s currently sitting at $2.7 billion pressuring two much smaller regional companies that it has working arrangements with to blacklist a specific performer for political reasons. Starr’s relationship with wXw was especially close; he had worked with the company for five years, and credits it with establishing him within the business. Starr last wrestled for Progress in December, losing to Jimmy Havoc, who, interestingly enough, is contracted to AEW in America. That hints at how thoroughly opposed to unions WWE is: it will let its partner promotions book AEW wrestlers, despite being WWE’s most direct and notable competition, but not somebody with a lower profile who happens to be openly challenging the industry’s labor structure. Their deals with WWE allow Progress and wXw to gain access to European stars who are currently signed to NXT U.K., including WALTER, Toni Storm, Jordan Devlin, Ilja Dragunov, Jinny and more. Those are some of the biggest draws in a wrestling market that was thriving just a few years ago, but that has seen a significant decline since WWE launched NXT U.K. and signed up most of the top available talent.
When reached for comment, Starr directed Paste to a YouTube video of the speech he gave in-ring after his last wXw match. “This isn’t some kind of, like, little ploy or schtick or angle, or anything,” he tells the audience. “This is actually me saying goodbye. There’s a price you pay for your speech. Freedom from speech does not mean freedom from consequence and I understand that… While this was a mutual decision is was not one either of us wanted to make.” At one point a German audience breaks into a loud “Bernie Sanders” chant. You can watch that below.
If WWE did have anything to do with this, it’d be more than a little bit ridiculous. This massive corporation that has TV contracts in the billions is so threatened by one wrestler openly discussing a union that they’re trying to prevent him from working with promotions he’s worked with for years. That really doesn’t seem like something WWE needs to be worrying about during an extended period of audience decline and the coronavirus crisis.
Of course, this is professional wrestling. It’s a business built on lies, misdirection and storytelling. It’s possible this is essentially an angle—not necessarily one that will play out within a wrestling ring, but one that will help one enterprising wrestler promote both himself and the legitimately worthwhile cause that has helped raise his profile within the business. It would be hard to distinguish that from Starr simply making the best of the situation if everything has gone down the way it reportedly has, though. And given WWE’s history, it would not be remotely surprising if they did push partner promotions not to book Starr.
No matter how on-the-level this story might be, one thing remains clear: wrestling’s labor situation is absurd. Even if Starr’s activism is partially an act, as some critics claim, it still raises awareness of how this business exploits its labor, which is important. It’s well past time for wrestlers to unionize, like performers in almost all other sports and entertainment fields have done.
Senior editor Garrett Martin writes about videogames, comedy, travel, theme parks, wrestling, and anything else that gets in his way. He’s on Twitter @grmartin.