Friday, December 9, 2016

When Promoters and Workers Clash, Bro

Riddle is at the center of the latest labor vs. management squabble in indie wrestling
Photo Credit: Scott Finkelstein
Matt Riddle is pretty much the hottest property in indie wrestling. The Ultimate Fighting Championship alumnus-turned-pro wrestler has had one of the most meteoric rises in the last year-plus, parlaying a WWE tryout into a starter run in EVOLVE and letting his career take off from there. He's been winning over crowds everywhere he's gone, from Southern gyms to English clubs. He appears to be the golden child of indie wrestling, so it came as somewhat of a surprise when Absolute Intense Wrestling announced that Riddle would no longer be appearing for the Cleveland outfit. What's even more surprising is the detail given in the Twitter announcement:

Promotions rarely give reasons as to why wrestlers don't get booked, so it's both odd but refreshing when someone gives the reason, right? Riddle, not one to shy away from a platform, detailed his complaints with great description. He was frustrated for being put into matches with "luchadores who can't work" or having to put over a "pirate" (Louis Lyndon, who was working some kind of pirate gimmick at the time, I guess? I'm not up on my current AIW characters)1. Of course, AIW responded to that, and well, this whole thing has just been a polarizing mess. But when have disputes between labor and management been anything but messy?

At its heart, this flap is what happens when an independent contractor exerts some kind of pressure on management without the backing of a union. It's rare because non-unionized labor doesn't have the safety net to fall back upon. It has no collective bargaining power, so the anxiety of facing management skyrockets because management at any time can pull a power play, cut the unhappy party loose, and have the next guy up take his spot. Additionally, the next guy up won't be too eager to take his peer's side because again, without unionization, the business becomes more cutthroat.

Throw in the fact that this is all happening on an independent level makes it all the more surprising that it's playing out this way. Few companies make money; indie wrestling lives on margins. The only thing separating management from labor is control, and that control comes without real financial security for anyone involved, including, nay, especially management. One could say that the control is an illusion, or that indie wrestling is one of the places where labor and management are on equally terrible footing. Promoters need names, but the names need places to work. Therefore, the dynamics in place are so complex that it makes everything seem like it's running smoothly when several places operate within chaotic dynamics. Few promotions run on name cache anymore. Few wrestlers move the needle enough to matter, and even fewer of them do so without the backing of WWE, New Japan Pro Wrestling, Lucha Underground, or some other national name brand. Labor in the United States is mostly tilted towards management, especially in mainstream wrestling, but the indies are where the tables are the most equal.

And yet, Riddle speaking up and walking out still feels like the best move, because wrestlers tend to be slaves to money and thus are less likely to even want to collectively bargain for themselves. Everyone should want self-determination. Everyone should want to have working conditions to their liking. And though I have some sympathy for companies dealing with workers they deem as malcontents (because to face it in real time, I know from experience that not all labor deserves to be protected even if those unionized protections should be universal), I'll more than likely side with the worker if all else is equal. But then again, why did Riddle have to throw his peers under the bus publicly? That kind of rhetoric, though honest, feels bush league.

So now, the argument circles back to its beginning. Matt Riddle and Absolute Intense Wrestling are in a fight, and they decided to part ways over it. The fallout sucks for fans, especially in Cleveland. The main lesson is that situations like these are complex and usually over nothing more than egos clashing. While the class war should extend into indie wrestling, and Riddle, who has drawing power, speaking up helps those who don't have said drawing power, I also don't think punishing him or AIW helps anyone. The clash is between them, and just because they're the rare people that took their beef public means that this thing doesn't happen all the time. Of course, things like unionization, universal single payer healthcare, and even government subsidy for wrestling, either under the auspices of arts funding or the way that taxes help billionaire sports owners build stadia, will help alleviate these things, but those are a far way off. For now, beefs like these over booking and pushes and shit aren't really worth sweating.

1 - If Riddle didn't wanna put a pirate over in AIW, then maybe he should walk back his request to work Chikara. Just sayin'.