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Teamster: Even the top guys in UFC are underpaid

Following the announcement that the Teamsters and UNITE HERE were trying to organize UFC fighters, the UFC let the fighters know that those same unions are the enemies of MMA in New York. Are fighters merely pawns in the union's struggle with Station Casinos? Bloody Elbow spoke to the Teamsters to try and answer the many questions raised by their efforts.

Michael Cohen/Getty Images

On Thursday, Teamsters Local 986 and UNITE HERE's Culinary Union Local 226 announced that they would be working together to try and organize the UFC's fighters. Many took this to be nothing more than a "thinly veiled attempt to leverage UFC fighters in the Culinary Union's battle to unionize Station Casinos."

This seems to be the interpretation held by the UFC, who issued a statement to MMAWeekly.com that read:

"The modern era of the UFC has seen incredible gains in athlete safety and compensation along with the mainstream success of a once marginalized sport. We are proud of this amazing record and consider it extremely duplicitous that the same labor union that has spent years demeaning UFC athletes, denouncing the sport of mixed martial arts, and doing everything possible to keep MMA out of New York, is now claiming to care about the interests of athletes in the UFC."

"Indeed, UFC has spent considerable time and effort defending against the outrageous allegations by this local union about athletes who have chosen to compete in the UFC. This is nothing more than the newest brazen tactic in a failing effort to organize culinary workers at a Las Vegas casino. It is shameful that local union leaders would try to use UFC athletes as pawns to advance this hidden agenda."

"We are proud of our relationship with all athletes who have entered into contracts with the UFC, and we are proud to produce a product that is enjoyed by millions of fans around the world."

Bloody Elbow also attained from several different sources an email from Kirk D. Hendrick, the UFC's Executive Vice President and Chief Legal Officer, titled "Important Message, that was sent to the promotion's fighters laying out their concerns and opposition to the union's efforts.

Dear Athletes,

You may see media reports in the days ahead about some union tactics that are both shameful and pathetic. The Culinary Workers Union Local 226 in Las Vegas and the Las Vegas Teamsters union allegedly have devised a plan to "organize MMA fighters." The reason this is pathetic is that the Culinary Union is the exact same union that has spent years, as well as the money from its dues-paying members, to do everything imaginable to keep MMA out of New York and to run a campaign telling UFC fans, sponsors and government officials to not support the professional sport that all of you compete in. They even created a website called "Unfitforchildren.org" to try and hurt the UFC, the sport of MMA and the very same athletes that they suddenly claim to care so much about.

Now, they are making more accusations against the UFC and they apparently believe that if MMA athletes would support the unions' organizing efforts, sign union cards and agree to pay dues to the union every month, then the world of MMA would be a better place. Not only is such a mission misguided, it hides the unions' only real interest, which is organizing workers at Station Casinos in Las Vegas, NV. They hope that by applying pressure to the UFC that somehow it will increase their chances in Las Vegas. Certainly, we will admit that their old tactics haven't been working because they have been harassing Station Casinos, its employees and customers for over 15 years and they have yet to organize even one Station Casinos' property.

There is a lot more that we could go into about these unions and their tactics, but for the time being, I'll just point out the most obvious and illogical fact about this latest tactic. As a matter of law, unions can only organize employees, and as we all know, MMA athletes are independent contractors—not employees. You would think that union leaders would have done that little bit of research before issuing a press release.

On behalf of everyone in the UFC, please know that we consider all of you to be amazing athletes and we are proud to have created a worldwide platform where you can compete in the sport you love and be compensated for it. For that reason, we will not sit by and let a group that has publicly demonstrated that it wants to destroy our beloved sport try to do so by lying to you. We will fight them with the truth and we will win.

Sincerely,

Kirk D. Hendrick
Zuffa, LLC, dba Ultimate Fighting Championship
Executive Vice President and Chief Legal Officer

It's understandable that the UFC would have a great deal of antagonism regarding anything initiated by Culinary Union Local 226. The UFC's primary owners, Frank and Lorenzo Fertitta, have been in a long and bitter struggle with the union over their attempts to organize the workers at the Fertitta's Station Casinos. The National Labor Board has found that Station Casinos had violated dozens of federal labor laws in response to the union organizing efforts while Culinary Union 226 and its parent union, UNITE HERE, have been accused of a long list of actions against the UFC. A list of their actions include using their union allies to keep mixed martial arts out of the state of New York, starting the website UFC = Unfit for Children, and, just last month, trying to block a planned fountain at the new UFC headquarters.

While Thursday's announced garnered plenty of attention, details were still a little vague. To get a better idea of what exactly the Teamsters and UNITE HERE were trying to accomplish I spoke last Friday with Chris Griswold, Secretary-Treasurer of the Teamsters, Local 986.

From the announcement it sounded like you would be organizing only UFC fighters. Is that correct?

"No. We want to organize all mma fighters. We started with the UFC because they're the biggest fish in the pond and what happens with them trickles down to the other organizations. But we want to bring all fighters together."

So why do your unions want to help organize fighters? And would it be a union or association they were going to organize?

"We were approached by a group of MMA fighters. They asked us for our assistance. With the resources the Teamsters and Culinary have could we help them build their own association.

"The Culinary and Teamsters both have a long history in Las Vegas of building for the working men and women in Las Vegas. This is something that isn't new for Culinary and the Teamsters to do. This is what we do. We built the standards for the working class in Las Vegas. So we are just following the path we have always followed in Las Vegas."

Isn't this really just part of the Culinary Union's ongoing fight with Station Casino?

"The fighters came to the Culinary and Teamsters. They asked us for the assistance. We never turn anyone down who wants to build their standard of living and give their workers a voice. They're aware of the battle we're having in Las Vegas. Everyone is aware of it. It's no secret. That's why they came to us."

What is your goal? What do you hope to achieve?

"The goal at the beginning of any organizing campaign is we have to speak to the workers. We're not in this to tell the fighters this is how you have to do it. If an association were built it would be whatever they wanted. It would be their association. So the first thing we have to do is consult with them."

So is the goal to start talking to fighters, to get fighters talking to each other, or just to share information with them?

"It's all of those things. It's a resource tool for them to know information. The ultimate goal is to get them to start talking and get together and change the sport."

With MMA there is a great deal of difference in what a headliner makes or wants compared to a fighter on the prelims. Many would ask why should those top stars take a pay cut for the people on the bottom of the card?

"That's a common tactic by management: pitting different workers against each other. But the fact is even the top guys aren't getting paid what they're worth. Look at Conor McGregor, he was just in this massive event. Do you think he made as much as athletes in other sports would have?

"So all the fighters are basically facing the same thing.

"I think you have to remember it isn't always about pay. It's also giving them a voice in how the policies are made or how the game is played. They can make all the money in the world but if they don't have a voice and they start changing the rules and regulations they can be out in an instance. We are trying to help them get a seat at the table."

What kind of help does the Teamsters and UNITE HERE offer for fighters that want to organize an association?

"There's lot of things we could do for them. The easiest way to put it is this is what we do for a career. We are organizing-researchers that help workers for the union every day so there's lots of things we could do. But again, I'll just say it's really up the fighters what we do. I know for some fighters there is a lot talk out there about the Ali Act. That is something we are looking in to. We want to talk to more fighters and see how it could be applied. That's one thing we could do. Another thing is we are organizers and researchers and could help them with our expertise to get this thing off the ground.  In the end it's about what the fighters want from us. We're here to help.

Only time will tell if this effort will prove more successful than that of the Joint Association of Boxers(JAB).