Most fans of mixed martial arts are well aware of the many efforts Zuffa and the UFC have put forth to get the sport legalized in the state of New York. Press conferences and rallies have been held, lobbyists have been hired, economic impact studies have been undertaken, and yet, so far, it has been for naught. The credit for stymieing these endeavors is usually laid at the feet of the state’s massive budget crisis, its Byzantine bureaucracy, or the current boogeyman of MMA regulation, New York Assemblyman Bob Reilly, who in the past has compared the sport to prostitution and dog fighting. Now entering the fray on the side of the "nays" is Unite Here, a labor union whose members work predominantly in the hotel, food service, laundry, warehouse, and casino gaming industries. They have released a memo detailing their reasons as to why the New York Legislation should reject bill S01707A, which would authorize mixed martial arts in the state:
• Unlike in boxing, where both federal and New York State laws have been passed to protect the athletes from exploitative and coercive promoter contracts, mixed martial arts fighters do not enjoy "outside-the-ring" protection from unscrupulous promoters.
• In the largest mixed martial arts promotion, the Ultimate Fighting Championships (UFC), fighters have spoken out against coercive contract provisions that lead to perceived unfair fighter pay.
They go on to cite the lack of a Mohammed Ali act in MMA, the UFC's position as a monopoly, and the abusive nature of their contracts (specifically the "champion clause", fighter status as independent contractors, and "image rights") as all reason to vote "no". Valid reasons to be against mixed martial arts? Perhaps, but according to the UFC's response their opposition has nothing to do with the sport or even the UFC:
"the real motivation for its "opposition" is the fact that a company in Las Vegas, a totally separate business outside of New York, has not acquiesced in a culinary union organizing drive; the only nexus between these two situations is the fact that some of the owners of the UFC happen to be partial owners of that separate company in Nevada."
"It has nothing to do with mixed martial arts the reason that we're not in New York," White said. "It has to do with the Culinary Union. The Culinary Union is spending millions of dollars of all these people who pay dues to keep us out of there because my partners, the Fertitta brothers, are the largest non-union gaming company in the country. So these union idiots, all these people work in the Culinary Union, pay their money towards dues, this is what all their money's being spent towards. Fighting the UFC from coming there and bringing money into the state of New York."
For what it is worth, long time MMA reporter, and even longer time New York residence, Eddie Goldman shot down Dana White's theories on his radio show, No Holds Barred (Transcript thanks to Zach Arnold at Fight Opinion):
"(In) 2008, The Culinary Workers Union Local 226, part of the umbrella organization, the umbrella union Unite Here, did start a corporate campaign against MMA in New York which was ill-advised and I’ve said so publicly and privately many, many times because whatever Station Casinos does and whatever the Fertittas do, really the sport of MMA is a legitimate sport (and) stands on its own merit. And MMA in New York would not only be UFC, would not only be the Zuffa organizations, but you would see a tremendous growth, a tremendous springing up of new organizations all over the state from local, indigenous New Yorkers. So, it’s not just a question of bringing in this Nevada gaming organization that’s on trial at the NLRB. It was very ill-advised and they stopped it. They really haven’t done anything in a few years on this issue. But people like Bob Reilly and the people in the New York state legislature that are opposed to MMA are not doing so because they got some union contributions. They’ve gotten union contributions all along, for decades. The trade union bureaucracies and the Democratic Party have been tight-in-bed for decades, this is absolutely nothing new. But, these people like Reilly are against fighting sports…"
"By the way, on the issue of unions, Keith Wright who is the head of the Assembly Labor Committee, is one of the big supporters of the bill to legalize MMA. He’s publicly spoken out on this issue and he’s a guy very much tied into the unions. So, if the unions are the problem, why is Keith Wright actively supporting this?"
Goldman makes a solid point that many of the bill's biggest supporters are also hardcore pro-union politicians. But that still doesn't mean that Unite Here and the Culinary Union are not actively fighting MMA in the Empire State as a means of hitting back at Frank and Lorenzo Fertitta.
So, has the struggle to bring mixed martial arts to New York become something of a proxy war for an even bigger struggle taking place in Nevada between the Fertitta's Station Casinos and the Culinary Workers Union? The answer to that question is... I don't know nor do I think it really matters in the grand scheme of getting MMA regulated in New York. What does matter is that from these statements it looks as if the UFC has settled on a strategy of focusing on the opposition possible ulterior motives for denying MMA, and that those voting against it are, in effect, in the Unions' pocket. True or not I hope they abandon this strategy immediately, because it is one I feel is doomed to make things even worse.
Is it really wise on the UFC's part to bring attention to the Fertittas struggle with unions, to the fact that Union Local 226 (along with the Bartenders Unions, Local 165) has filed a complaint against Station Casinos with the National Labor Relations Board, alleging that "the company has illegally used threats, intimidation, interrogation, surveillance, bribery, discouragement, discrimination, discipline and physical assault against employees engaged in lawfully protected union activities." Accusation that, in a surprise move, Stations Casino decided to present no defense against when offered the chance in court. In a state with with the highest union membership rate in the nation I don't think it would be wise at all.
Current polls put support for legalization at around 39% in New York. Attacking unions and drawing attention to less than stellar labor relations is not going to win over union members and union households, who we should remember vote in higher numbers than the general population. What will win support is something I have recommended before in the comment sections, and that is for the UFC to step aside and let someone else, someone with no attachments to Zuffa, to take the point in lobbying to get bill S01707A passed. It's too late for Zuffa and the UFC: the story of legalization is now the story of their business practices. They have become a liability and the longer they remain active the more it will be about them and unions. But they can help by throwing support behind a local proponent (may I recommend Stephan Koepfer, Founder of The Coalition to Legalize Mixed Martial Arts in New York) and then retreating into the background. Before, with the UFC's strategy of making sure that they were always viewed as synonymous and ubiquitous with mixed martial arts it made sense for them to be at the forefront guaranteeing that only they would really benefit from its passage. But that threat no longer exists. They have crushed all their enemies, seen them driven before them, and have heard the lamentation of their women, and now only they remain as anything remotely close to a major promotion.
As strange as it may sound, the UFC is not helping the sport of MMA in New York.