EXCLUSIVE | Leslie Smith: It’s ‘very obvious to me that fighters need a union’

Leslie Smith

Efforts to unionize UFC fighters have come and gone throughout the years. Every time a new union group comes out, there is optimism that it might become a success, yet so far, not one has gained any meaningful traction. However, Project Spearhead feels different. Thanks to this initiative’s hard work, UFC fighters are finally realizing that they are employees and not independent contractors as the UFC would have them believe. Former UFC fighter and Project Spearhead’s Interim President Leslie Smith is certain of this.

I started Project Spearhead because it was very obvious to me that fighters need a union,” Leslie Smith told BJPENN.COM. “There has been several other efforts that for various reasons didn’t work out. I knew my time, my promotional contract with the UFC was almost over. I needed to deal with the first issue, which is whether we are independent contractors or employees. Getting anybody to agree to anything is being really difficult. The whole point of this is unity, that is what we need, fighters to unify and come together. By getting the information, [it will] determine if we are independent contractors or employees. That would be the first step on getting everyone on the same page.” 

However, getting everyone on the same page is rather difficult, especially in the UFC, where some fighters are treated well and paid handsomely, and others need to work second jobs as they live out their dream on the side. To even go to the labour board, Project Spearhead needs to fulfil one thing before they can even make a case for a union.

“We are first collecting authorization cards so that we can hand them over to the NLRB as a showing of interest. The amount of cards we need signed for that is 30% of the roster,” Leslie Smith said. “Which is about 600 people so about 200 people need to sign cards [still]. Once those cards are signed… signing the authorization is not voting to put me or Project Spearhead in power. All it is saying, is the fighters are interested in having an election.”

“After those cards are verified and the NLRB evaluates the UFC, the employee situation, and then we can have a union,” she continued. “We then can elect anyone that we wanted to, well not me, I am not in the UFC, the fighters would elect anyone that they wanted to. In order for a union to be elected, they would need to have a simple majority of the votes. They would have to be 51% of the votes, so there are two different processes that need to happen before we have a union.”

Getting a union would be important for UFC fighters as they can help negotiate for the important things that most companies give their employees — health insurance, retirement plans, et cetera. Smith knows the time is now for a union. More fighters are seeing the benefits, especially after the recent shakeups surrounding the UFC 230 main event.

The UFC recently booked a flyweight title fight between Valentina Shevchenko and Sijara Eubanks for the card’s headliner. In order to do so, however, they had to pull Shevchenko from a scheduled, official fight with Joanna Jedrzejczyk, and Eubanks from a fight with Jessica Eye. While many fans were confused as to how the UFC was able to do this to Jedrzejczyk and Eye, Smith isn’t. She’s experienced this sort of thing first hand. 

“The way the UFC contracts are, the UFC doesn’t have any obligations to the fighters, but the fighters have a major obligation to the UFC,” Leslie Smith said. “That is because most of the contracts — that everyone in the UFC has signed out — have not been negotiated. When contracts are not negotiated, they are very, very one-sided. A contract that prevents the fighter from getting out of a fight, but allows the promotion to cancel a fight anytime they want is very one-sided.”

“A union will collectively bargain for less one-sided contracts,” she continued. “In the future, when there is a union to protect the fighters, things happen. There is no guarantee about anything. But it would be a big deal to make sure such a small courtesy to phone a fighter to tell them what is going on about their fights, so they don’t have to read about it online or social media. Those are kind of the bare minimums. The lowest respect levels that it would be part of a collective bargaining agreement.”

Obviously, Project Spearhead has a lot of work to do, yet they have already accomplished a lot. Interest among fighters is constantly growing. That being said, Smith isn’t sure how long this process will take.

There have been a bunch [of authorization cards signed],” she said. “I don’t know, I think they need to keep on learning and experiencing and watching. I guess we will probably find out at the same time of what becomes the tipping point.”

Do you think Leslie Smith and Project Spearhead will successfully unionize fighters?

This article first appeared on BJPENN.COM on 10/8/2018.