Image courtesy of Bloomberg News

Courtesy of Bloomberg Law

Professional mixed martial arts fighter Leslie Smith is looking to unionize her fellow UFC fighters. But the effort might have knocked out her career with the largest MMA organization in the world, she alleges.

Smith says in an NLRB charge filed May 2 that the organization unexpectedly decided not to renew her contract, and she alleges the move was retaliation for union activity she began in February.

The UFC declined to comment.

The case also presents the National Labor Relations Board with the question of whether UFC fighters are accurately classified under labor law as independent contractors or should be considered employees. A decision in Smith’s favor—that she’s an employee—could affect a 2014 antitrust lawsuit brought by other UFC fighters, attorneys said. 

UFC Doesn’t Renew Smith

Smith’s battle with the UFC started on April 21 in Atlantic City, N.J., the night of her last bout. The match was canceled after her opponent missed target weight to fight. Smith then attempted to extend her contract with UFC, but the organization refused, her attorney, Lucas Middlebrook, said.

Smith was paid what she was owed for that fight and the would-be prize money. UFC fighters are paid to show up and they get an additional sum of money if they win. By paying her that night, UFC considered all contractual obligations fulfilled, Middlebrook said. The organization didn’t provide Smith with an explanation for not renewing the agreement.

Smith has been very public about her unionization efforts. She launched Project Spearhead in February to organize UFC fighters and is listed on its website as the interim president. Smith’s contract wasn’t renewed, but another interim union leader, Al Iaquinta, is still under contract with the UFC. Iaquinta is listed as the group’s secretary treasurer.

Project Spearhead’s effort is not the first attempt to organize MMA fighters. The Professional Fighters Association formed a few years ago for that purpose, but that organizing effort fell apart after a confidential list of interested fighters leaked in 2016. Middlebrook and Smith were part of that effort.

Independent Contractor Question Debated

Middlebrook hopes to convince the NLRB that Smith and the other fighters are employees of the UFC.

The organization exerts a lot of control over fighters, he told Bloomberg Law. They are required to wear a uniform and can’t don gear showcasing their own sponsors. The UFC doesn’t allow its contracted fighters to participate in events sponsored by competing organizations.

Leonard C. Schiro, a professor of labor relations in prfessional sports at Rutgers University, isn’t convinced the fighters can rightly be considered employees. He bases that conclusion on the nature of the UFC and the MMA sport in general.

An employer generally provides employees with the resources needed for a job. In professional baseball, for instance, a team would provide hitting instructors, coaches, and a place to practice. That relationship is maintained throughout the year, he said.

With MMA, fighters have individual contracts that would spell out how many fights they get annually. If they do one fight a year, that may not be enough to be considered an employee. The UFC also doesn’t provide fighters with a trainer, coach, or a place to practice, he said.

“They’re not supplying all that, so it’s much more indicative of an independent contractor,” Schiro said.

James Quinn, an attorney at Berg & Androphy who has represented UFC fighter Georges St-Pierre over contract disputes with the organization, says there’s a good argument in favor of calling them employees.

“UFC controls virtually everything with their fighters,” he said, based on his experience with the organization. 

Labor Agreement Could Thwart Antitrust Claim

It’s possible that an NLRB decision in Smith’s case could affect an ongoing antitrust lawsuit filed in 2014 by multiple UFC fighters, attorneys said. The case alleges that the UFC’s parent company is an illegal monopoly under the Sherman Act.

If Smith is successful in getting a union certified, a collective bargaining agreement could contain language that addresses the concerns expressed in the lawsuit, Quinn said. That includes athletes’ complaints about not being allowed to participate events sponsored by competitors of the UFC.

“UFC could move to have that case dismissed, because the CBA would supersede any claims asserted in the antitrust suit,” he said.

The case is Leslie Smith v. Zuffa, N.L.R.B., filed 5/2/18.