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Kill Twitch Engage: WWE’s ‘Independent Contractor’ Designation Is More Threatened Than Ever

Back in September, Vince McMahon held a conference call, and sent a memo to his talent regarding the use of their image and likeness on third-party platforms such as Twitch and Cameo. Via WrestlingInc.com:

Some of you are engaged with outside third parties using your name and likeness in ways that are detrimental to our company,” McMahon wrote. “It is imperative that these activities be terminated within the next 30 days (by Friday October 2). Continued violations will result in fines, suspension, or termination at WWE’s discretion.

In layman’s terms: Cut out the streaming and video recorded birthday shout-outs or we’ll potentially fire you.

At first, it was simply a demand to stop using their WWE-branded names as such, but it soon extended to real-life, non-kayfabe legal names. Chances are the top brass at the company learned the kind of money you could potentially earn by doing these side gigs and decided that the revenue stream should be diverted directly to WWE’s corporate bottom line and away from the pockets of their performers. After all, which do you think pleases investors more? 

This isn’t just some hobby that lower card performers or occasionally used talent did to supplement their trips to the pay window. These were some of the biggest stars in the company, including former world champions AJ Styles and Paige. This was spun by WWE corporate, that due to the ever-present global pandemic and the lack of live shows and appearance dates, WWE saw Twitch streaming and Cameo as ways for the company to make back some of its lost live gate and merchandise sales. Money from these endeavors would be simply factored into talent’s “downside guarantee,” or minimum contracted salary; what was once a lucrative and fun way to connect with fans was simply being folded into the everyday duties of being a WWE superstar.

AJ Styles, Twitch enthusiast

As outrageous as this all seemed, it seemed especially cruel to the aforementioned Paige, who is more or less retired from in-ring performing following a second major neck injury suffered while working for WWE. Paige has amassed a large Twitch following at around 160,000 at the time of writing. Her inability to perform in the traditional sense was why she started streaming in the first place.

This understandably upset Paige, which led to the inevitable discussion of unionizing.

The concept of unionizing in professional wrestling had been broached back in the 1980s by Jesse Ventura, who attempted to do so sometime around WrestleMania 2. Ventura was thwarted by notorious 1980’s wrestling villain [checks notes] Hulk Hogan, who according to Ventura, had his plans spoiled when the Hulkster ratted him out to McMahon. Hogan, the absolute tippy top guy in the company at the time, did not want the Jesse Venturas or the Velvet McIntyres of the world getting a bigger piece, apparently. This is considered by many as the last real attempt to unionize in the American professional wrestling industry. 

Unless, of course, they messed with the wrong cosplayer.

Better known as Zelina Vega while with WWE, Thea Trinidad became the public face of this new policy when on the afternoon of November 13, seemingly unprompted, when she tweeted “I support unionization.”

Within ten minutes, WWE announced they had released Trinidad. Vega was an incredibly visible performer for the company, having been featured on television all year as the manager for Andrade and Angel Garza. She had even started wrestling more, getting a shot at the WWE Raw Women’s title against Asuka in September. 

In the immediate aftermath, this was met with a lot of confusion. Was this retaliation? Was she fired because of this succinct stand taken online? Not quite. Vega is said to have gotten wind of her pending release and had a parting shot for the company. The timing appears to have been coincidental. 

Already an active Twitch streamer, what people like myself learned after the fact was that Trinidad is quite the accomplished cosplayer outside of the wrestling world. So popular, in fact, she started up an OnlyFans account. This was apparently a bridge too far for WWE. While Trinidad was not photographed nude on the site, the platform is best known as a way for people of all walks of life to sell sexy pics of themselves and interact with fans.

In layman’s terms: Cut out the streaming and video recorded birthday shout-outs or we’ll potentially fire you.

In the aftermath, this caught the attention of 2020 Democratic presidential hopeful Andrew Yang. WWE’s incredibly loose definition of “independent contractors” has been under fire since a total evisceration at the hands of HBO’s John Oliver shortly before WrestleMania 35.  Yang has kept this topic in the public light, often pointing out the one-sided nature of how WWE compensates its employees anytime they find themselves in the news. 

With the buddy-buddy nature of the McMahon family with the Trump administration, it was exceedingly unlikely anything was going to change at a federal level. However, with the pending Biden administration, Mr. Yang has been floated as a possible Secretary of Labor. When learning of the news of Trindad’s release on Twitter, Yang’s response was that he quite literally had “not forgotten about Vince McMahon.” 

As it stands at time of writing this, WWE main roster talent seems to have complied, for the most part. Paige has still been streaming, without interruption. NXT talent, for the time being, also appears exempt as Adam Cole and Tyler Breeze have continued to stream without interruption. That they’re frequently joined by Xavier Woods and Cesaro, however, suggests some talent did not resist too much for the sake of the audiences they built. Woods was recently announced as a new host for the relaunch of the gaming channel G4. Whether this grants him certain privileges beyond WWE’s policy remains to be seen. 

This very much remains a story to follow going into 2021. WWE’s long exploitation of the independent contractor designation has never felt more threatened than it does right now. Let’s hope this is a huge step, not just for WWE, but professional wrestlers in general going forward.

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