Warrior Wrestling owner Steve Tortorello on WWE labeling talent as independent contractors, Zelina Vega’s talks with SAG-AFTRA, how a union would affect independent promotions

By Jason Powell, ProWrestling.net Editor (@prowrestlingnet)

Outside Interference Podcast with guest Steve Tortorello
Host: Kenny Herzog
Twitter: @KennyHerzog
Website: Kennyherzog.com
Interview available at Apple Podcasts

Steve Tortorello on his reaction to former WWE performer Thea Trinidad’s (a/k/a Zelina Vega) talks with SAG-AFTRA about supporting unionization in wrestling: “WWE has listed people as independent contractors, but treated them not only as employees, but very restricted employees. And with restrictions that employees of any other company wouldn’t necessarily be under. My day job is I’m the principal of a Catholic high school. The president who runs the ship and the Dominican sisters who own the school don’t dictate whether or not I also work at Arby’s on a Friday night. WWE treats their talent like employees, yet they classify their wrestlers as independent contractors, which is a joke.

“And so I think [Trinidad’s discussions are] a positive development for WWE. However, I also think there’s a lot of variation within the industry. I’ve seen takes in the last couple of weeks where people have said, ‘Well, there’s gotta be one wrestlers union for everybody, regardless of the company.’ And I actually disagree with that because as an independent promoter, we work a lot with Impact talent, AEW talent, some new Japan talent, a lot of luchadores out of Mexico. And they are true independent contractors in that they’re contracted for their home promotions, so to speak, but they can take outside bookings. So I actually don’t think there’s necessarily a case for unionization in some of those promotions, because if they’re being treated like true independent contractors. They have the freedom that an independent contractor should have.”

Tortorello on whether unions would pose an existential threat to indie promotions: “It depends on what happens cost-wise. So for example, if they end up in one pan-wrestling union, and that dictates that anyone who is a union member, when working an independent show. needs to ask for at least $500 a person — whether it’s your first time putting on your boots or not — then that’s not sustainable. There’s no way independent wrestling at the small level can continue. But if it’s something as simple as the understanding that if you work with union wrestlers, catering is provided, these safety conditions are met, this is the way you schedule — I’m okay with that.”

On whether promotions that can’t ensure basic safety and payment protections should be in business: “The interesting thing is I think you’d see wrestlers be very split on that. I think you’d see some people say, ‘Absolutely, these flea market type shows should not be running.’ And then other wrestlers would say, ‘Well, then where am I going to break in? Where am I going to really sharpen my skills before I get to more professional promotions?’ I can see it either way. For me, the most important thing is transparency. I’ve read all the books about sleazy promoters in the ’90s and getting in fights and chasing people down alleys for their pay. I think that for the most part is working its way out of wrestling and needs to be gone. So if something corrected that problem once and for all, then I’m all about it. But if it prevents mom and pop operations from operating in a way that could benefit wrestlers, then I think there needs to be some wiggle room.”

On the possibility of a best-practices charter for all promoters: “I am kind of shocked — and gosh, maybe we can develop it — that there doesn’t exist a standard agreement. There should be some type of standard form that everybody fills out, or at least bigger independents agree to use: your name, our name, how are we going to pay you? How are we covering trans[portation]? What safety things are expected at the venue? Is food expected? And then we just exchanged that via email so that at the very least there is transparency, because the horror stories I’ve heard from wrestlers are vague promises up front, under delivering on the backend. So if a lot of major promotions agree to some form of transparency that they use with the wrestlers upfront, I think that can eliminate a lot of the danger and a lot of the pitfalls of fly-by-night wrestling organizations. But who is going to create this charter?

“Honestly, maybe that’s something we start doing for our next show. Or we talk to a couple of other promotions and say, ‘Hey, we want to be even more on the up and up. Here’s something we were going to do. If you guys want to use it, great. If you’ve got ideas to fix it, great.’ I think it could almost be something like the five tribes of Native Americans in the Northeast and how they kind of had large council meetings and they had general agreements of how they’re going to interact with the growing American nation. That could be something as simple as Warrior reaches out to Black Label and Freelance and AIW and GCW and Defy and says, ‘Hey guys, we’re going to start using this. If you want to use it, it’s there. If you want to approve it, it’s there.’ What we’re doing here is we’re saying, ‘Okay, maybe we need to identify the promotions that can’t simply act like their backyard promotions anymore.'”

Tortorello on the urgency of protecting talent and personnel amid Covid: “It sounds like I’m on the payroll for AEW. I’m not. I’ve just been working with a lot of promotions, and they’re the smoothest to work with. So when we did our first Covid-era show in August, it was an outdoor show in our football stadium, socially distanced, masks, etc. I actually had a lot of communication via email with Christopher Daniels and Chris Harrington inside AEW about how their talent is tested, what their hopes for us are. We shared what we were testing. We shared test results. It was a great correspondence and a really positive experience. And it was something as simple as one of the workers connected me to the guys in the office, and then we exchanged expectations about how we’d treat workers. I know a lot of people threw a lot of shade at The Collective down in Indianapolis, and the team there did as best as they possibly could. At that point, Indiana was just on fire as far as Covid goes. And there’s more that should have been done knowing that, especially with an indoor event. I think, in the time of Covid, there should be an expected universal best practice for how we’re going to handle testing, spacing, cleaning, etc.”


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