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Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Road to Wrestlemania: Daniel Bryan brings Occupy to RAW

Posted By on Wed, Mar 12, 2014 at 5:28 PM

click to enlarge Daniel Bryan in the ring. - KRYSTAL BOGNER/CREATIVE COMMONS
  • Daniel Bryan in the ring.

In one big night, the lineup for WrestleMania XXX, which will be in the Superdome April 6, went from merely promising to awesome. 

Inviting dozens from the audience (not all of whom may have been actual audience members) to invade the ring, underdog wrestler Daniel Bryan declared #OccupyRAW and, through seizing control of the shop floor, brought business-as-usual to a halt. Wrestlers could not wrestle; the ring was full of chanting fan9s in Daniel Bryan t-shirts.

Once Triple H, the WWE's Chief Operating Officer, tried to resolve the occupation by conceding Bryan could have a match against him at WrestleMania XXX, Bryan went a step futher: If he won the match against Triple H, Bryan wanted to be added to WrestleMania's WWE World Heavyweight title match, which had previously been booked as a two-man contest between the generally disliked Randy Orton and the despised Batista.

Triple H, so apoplectic he had to be restrained by security guards, agreed. Throughout this, his wife Stephanie McMahon, the daughter of WWE mastermind Vince McMahon, gave the star turn of a lifetime. A wrathful business-suited Valkyrie, outraged at having her power and authority challenged, she snarled at Bryan and his fellow occupiers that "The moment I was born, this ring, all of this, became mine!" When her husband, goaded beyond endurance, gave the wild-haired Bryan his WrestleMania spot, Stephanie's eyes seemed to bug out of her head. Her husband's foolish pride had allowed this disrespectful little bearded scumbag a starring role in her WrestleMania! It was all tremendous.

The vegan environmentalist Daniel Bryan is a good fit for an "Occupy" storyline. Put bluntly, he seems the type. Several years back when he was competing in demeaning side-show stunts on the show then called NXT (NXT is now WWE's exciting developmental wrestling promotion), Bryan, challenged to sell as many commemorative print programs as he could to audience members in a sixty-second span, said, "I'm sort of an anti-capitalist" and gave the programs away free. He pals around with Kimya Dawson, whose jam-packed, cuddling-room-only January '08 performance at the old Iron Rail inside 511 Marigny renders Bryan very few degrees of separation from some actual anarchists.

But Bryan is wrestler through and through, to a fanatical degree even many of the WWE's other stars are not. He is purely a pro wrestler, not a football-player-turned-wrestler, MMA-fighter-turned-wrestler, actor-turned-wrestler or model-turned-wrestler. He loves the pro wrestling business and is thus a company man, as anyone who loves the business in 2014 must be, since WWE basically is pro wrestling. Bryan using what seem to be his real-life politics to sell 'Mania tickets is really just business as usual, no different from C.M. Punk building feuds around being straight-edge, Edge, Lita & Matt Hardy using their behind-the-scenes romantic entanglement as part of an on-air storyline, or John Cena a couple years back sneering that the returned Rock is a part-timer and movie star who lacked the heart to stick with wrestling.

Back in 2011 when the non-WWE version of Occupy was taking place, WWE responded with a storyline in which WWE Superstats, announcers and even production staff walked out on Monday Night RAW after holding a vote of no confidence in its leadership. The next week the strikers held what they called a "solidarity rally," picketing the show in the venue's parking lot. It was a quaintly old-school take on the movement. The anti-establishment hero C.M.Punk, whose version of punk has always seemed individualistic and more about speaking one's mind, was one of only a few stars who crossed the make-believe picket line, and he even cut a promo on the strikers. "Unsafe working environment? I thrive on that! Hell, this is professional wrestling, this ain't ballet! If you believe in something, you stand and you fight, and you fight on the front line; you don't have a hippie sit-in and grill tofu dogs in the parking lot."

Of course, that's just entertainment. Right? In the world outside television, C.M. Punk tweeted back encouragement when the rapper Immortal Technique announced he was joining the Occupy Wall Street encampment. Even the wrestler Jack Swagger, then "The All-American American" and now part of the jingoistic anti-immigrant "Real Americans" tag team, used Twitter to defend Occupy Wall Street from the insults of Newt Gingrich.

Occupy meant many things to many people. WWE CEO Vince McMahon, who addressed it obliquely during the walk-out storyline on an October 2011 episode of RAW, magnanimously allowed how those who'd begun picketing his TV show were within their rights. They were, he said, "just speaking their mind, same as those people are doing on Wall Street."

This brings us to WWE's own history of labor relations. In a nutshell, and to the best of this non-lawyer barely-employed person's understanding, WWE's wrestlers are classified as self-employed "independent contractors" rather than employees, a state of affairs reaffirmed by an unsuccessful 2008 lawsuit, Levy v. WWE, filed by three former wrestlers.

What this means is that WWE's Superstars, as independent contractors, are not given certain things they'd be entitled to as employees, like health insurance; nor does WWE have to pay social security taxes on them. On the flip side, the employment contracts WWE wrestlers sign are more restrictive than you'd expect an independent contractor's would be. In one of the only examples of a WWE wrestler's contract I was able to find, it specifically prohibited the signee from wrestling for any other promotion, or appearing elsewhere without WWE's pre-approval, and guaranteed WWE ten percent of any other income the wrestler generated during any appearances outside WWE.

In a 2009 interview with Eric Cohen, former WWE Superstar / Governor of Minnesota Jesse "The Body" Ventura says he attempted to unionize WWE wrestlers in 1986, in the run-up to WrestleMania II, but was undercut by Hulk Hogan, then and probably forevermore pro wrestling's biggest star— and the host of WrestleMania XXX. One of the things about professional wrestlng, even more so than most businesses, is that it's worth taking the stories wrestlers tell with a grain of salt, but whatever actually happened, Ventura seems genuinely bitter about it. He told Cohen that, having secured himself Screen Actor's Guild union membership, labor conditions at WWE are no longer his problem. "I don’t care. I have my union. I attempted to do it way back in the mid-80’s. If wrestlers are so dumb and stupid that they don’t want to fight for something they should have then that is their business."

Many in the pro wrestling press and some in other segments of entertainment have advocated pro wrestlers join the Screen Actors Guild. "There’s really no reason why these guys are not in SAG," film director Darren Aronofsky told Newsday in 2008, while promoting his movie The Wrestler. "They’re in front of a camera performing and doing stunts, and they should have that protection. They should have health insurance and they should be protected."

As a fan, it's not clear to me what effect SAG membership might have on the business. I spoke yesterday with a film director saddled with what I can only characterize as a ridiculously restrictive SAG legal contract dictating under precisely which conditions a scene could be filmed in which one actor touches another's dick. There may not be a lot of direct dick-touching in WWE, but pro wrestling has historically been an outlaw business. I badly miss the days when wrestlers on TV would draw blood, a practice I feel adds unmatchable intensity when correctly used, and that, for example, doesn't strike me as something SAG would be into. From a purely selfish perspective, getting SAG lawyers into the mix doesn't seem like a recipe for better pro wrestling.

A great way for WWE to stave off unionization would be to make a few changes in how it treats its current wrestlers. WWE has taken some steps in the right direction; they've shown generosity to former employees, for example by covering the tab for their drug & alcohol rehabilitations, and I appreciate that WWE has banned the concussion-inducing and once-ubiquitous steel chair shots to the head.

But by hiring wrestlers as actual employees, giving them health insurance and guaranteeing them time off to heal from the brutal grind of in-ring competition, travel and promotional work, WWE would benefit the wrestlers themselves, the perception people have of WWE, and, by helping ensure healthier performers, the long-term enjoyment of fans.

We can only hope that, just as the COO on last Monday's RAW made "concessions" to Daniel Bryan that significantly improved the WrestleMania XXX lineup and will sell additional tickets, those in power at WWE will, as a result of pressure from whatever direction, similarly concede to their wrestlers some of the workplace benefits their fans know they deserve, baseline amenities like health insurance and time off. It wouldn't just be the right thing to do; it would be be best for business.

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