Canada: The UFC Illustrates A Cautionary Tale - Does The "U" Now Stand For "Unionized"?

Last Updated: January 4 2017
Article by Michael MacLellan

If you have been following mainstream mixed martial arts ("MMA") for very long, like I have, it does not come as much of a surprise that a select group of athletes are purporting to have formed an Association to represent the interests of fighters contracted to the world's largest MMA promoter, the Ultimate Fighting Championship ("UFC").  Although it has been careful to avoid calling itself a union per se (it is far from settled whether fighters are employees or independent contractors, a key factor in unionizing), the Mixed Martial Arts Athletes' Association ("MMAAA") announced in late November that it intended to fight for fair pay, healthcare, pensions, and other benefits currently enjoyed by other high profile athletes – all of which certainly sound like typical Union rhetoric. 

The MMAAA is spearheaded by Bjorn Rebney, who was famously in charge of UFC's chief rival Bellator MMA until his release in mid-2014.  Along with Rebney, MMAAA is being represented by a number of current and former UFC superstars, including Canadian former champion Georges St. Pierre, and other fighters who have been publicly unhappy with their UFC contracts. 

There are a number of easily identifiable long-standing issues of contention between the UFC and its fighters that have predicated these developments.  For example, MMAAA supporter and UFC contender Tim Kennedy has recently complained that he lost thousands of dollars out of pocket for a fight that was cancelled due to his opponent failing a medical examination.  It is common knowledge that being a professional mixed martial artist is an expensive career.  Fighters have to pay top money for the best access to coaching, training partners and facilities, and often incur living expenses associated with moving closer to their preferred gyms.  On top of that, fighters have to pay for their own medical expenses for pre-fight screening, and normally post-fight medical attention.  You can see why it is problematic that profits are rumoured to be split 92% to 8% in favour of the UFC as opposed to its fighters – which is well out of step with other professional sports, including boxing. 

What's more, the UFC's fighter contracts have historically been criticized and draconian and oppressive, especially when it comes to intellectual property and likeness rights, meaning that the UFC can profit off of videos, appearances, video games, toys, and other products depending on fighters' images and personalities, with little if any compensation for the actual athletes.  And then there is the much-maligned Reebok uniform deal, where the UFC unilaterally agreed to outfit its fighters exclusively in Reebok equipment and prohibit all other wearable sponsorships during the weeks of its fight cards.  While UFC seemed to have intended and in fact implemented that multi-million dollar deal with all proceeds going to fighters on a pre-determined scale, the reality appears to be that by and large, fighters are losing out by not being able to promote their personal sponsors during appearances and on television.  Finally, given that the UFC was recently purchased by a massive corporate entity for a reported $4.2 BILLION, it is fair to say that many fighters are left feeling ripped-off.

While I'm not one to endorse unions, it does not take a left-leaning sympathizer to see that these conditions can breed pro-union sentiment.  What could the UFC have done differently?  Well, hindsight may be 20/20, but there are a few helpful hints that are applicable to all employers:

  • Pay your employees a fair and competitive wage;
  • Ensure safe and comfortable working conditions;
  • Listen to your employees' concerns and act on them to ensure that you demonstrate their value to the company, and build good faith relations;
  • Try to be accessible to and collaborative with your employees on an individual level;
  • Reward your employees with discretionary bonuses for a job well-done;
  • Maintain morale among the workers;
  • Ensure direct supervisors are cooperative and empathic to the workers, and not divisive or "superior".

If you believe that a union may be attempting to organize your workforce, you must be careful to watch what you say, since even a well-intentioned slip-up could be devastating.  Do not threaten, interrogate, interfere, or intimidate your employees by, for example, threatening to close down the company or fire employees supporting a union.  By the same token, do not promise employees some kind of benefit or payment for defeating the union.  These kind of tactics are contrary to the Labour Relations Act and could result in your company being automatically certified in favour of a union.

On the other hand, there are a number of statements that you can make that are totally appropriate and legal.  For example, you can hold a meeting or circulate a letter confirming that: no union can guarantee higher wages; that union employees have to abide by the union's decisions and lose their individual rights to things like preferential work conditions, discretionary bonuses, and gifts; union membership itself may be costly to the employees; and if regional companies have suffered or closed after becoming unionized, you may remind your employees of that fact.

It remains to be seen whether the MMAAA or any other "association" will actually represent the UFC's fighters collectively.  But one thing is for certain, employers can learn a lesson from the work environment and sentiment fostered by the UFC's apparent administration.  If you or your company need advice on maintaining and open shop workplace or how to react to rumours of union organization, you can reach out to any of CCPartners' lawyers with considerable experience in labour relations.

The content of this article is intended to provide a general guide to the subject matter. Specialist advice should be sought about your specific circumstances.

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Michael MacLellan
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