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Midnight Mania! NLRB finds Leslie Smith’s ‘employee’ claim to have merit, will file complaint against UFC

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The first important step in a long process occurred today, as Lucas Middlebrook, the attorney associated with Leslie Smith’s group Project Spearhead, said that the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) Region 4 found her complaint to have merit and will file a complaint against the UFC.

This is exactly what Leslie Smith was hoping for. Currently the UFC considers their fighters independent contractors. As such, they are left both without employee benefits and without the benefit of collective bargaining by a union (Independent contractors are prohibited from forming unions under current US labor law). The NLRB review will examine whether UFC fighters should be considered employees, and if they are, a union will be the next step. Middlebrook explained the process, via

“In this initial step, this is the best-case scenario, that the NLRB will have investigated the charge and determined that there was enough merit to file a complaint and prosecute the charge on behalf of Leslie,” Middlebrook said.

“I believe once the evidence is presented in a hearing in front of an administrative law judge, I believe at a minimum a determination will be made that the fighters are statutory employees,” said Middlebrook, a New York labor attorney who represents the likes of the NBA referees union. “But I also believe that a determination will be made that by their conduct that they violated the [National Labor Relations Act] when they released Leslie.”

Smith had been attempting to get enough fighters to sign Project Spearhead cards to trigger exactly this kind of NLRB review, when the UFC paid her show and win money NOT to fight after her opponent missed weight. She was on the last fight of her contract. The UFC did not offer Leslie, a ranked fighter on a 3-fight winning streak at bantamweight, a new contract, and the perception was that they had paid her to go away, in retaliation for her attempts to unionize the fighters. That would, of course, be illegal behavior, as it is not permitted employers to retaliate against employees for attempting to unionize.

Their actions precipitated the very chain of events they were attempting to forestall. The process will be a long one, as observers note, and it comes with an almost immediate qualifier. The decision has already sent to D.C. for review- a choice that Middlebrook sees as behind-the-scenes manipulation from the UFC.

Lawyer Jason Cruz explained how the legal battle might unfold- if D.C. upholds the decision, there will be an answer from Zuffa, then attempt to dismiss the Complaint and the injunction that will likely follow the complaint. This is now occurring parallel to the anti-trust lawsuit, which, ironically, hinges on UFC fighters NOT being unionized; you can read about the two paths towards fighters getting a greater share of the rewards of their blood, sweat and head trauma here.

The context, and why this matters, of course, is that this occurs after a year of record profit for the UFC, in which fighters, who have very few other employment options with the UFC’s stranglehold on the top levels of the sport, are left with less than 17% of the revenue, compared to 30-60% in more mainstream sports.

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