Former UFC fighter and current Bellator fighter "The Peacemaker" Leslie Smith was on today's episode of The Wrestling Inc. Daily podcast where she and Wrestling Inc. Managing Editor Nick Hausman discussed Smith's pursuit to unionize UFC fighters and getting cut by the UFC while she was trying to do it. Smith started by talking about what made her realize that UFC fighters needed a union.
"Well, it was kind of just a known thing that fighters weren't treated very well and that they were in horrible contracts and that basically, the promotion could just cut you at any time whenever they felt like it for any reason or no reason at all," Smith noted. "And the fighters had none of that, and I think that maybe I saw it a little bit more because of the team that I'm on, the Gracie Fighter Team.
"It's got Nick Diaz, and Nate Diaz, and Jake Shields and Gilbert Melendez, and so maybe being part of that team, I developed a little bit of a 'us vs. them' mentality and looked at the UFC from that perspective maybe a little bit more than other people did. I just saw there's a need, and then I kind of dabbled in it a little bit.
"I got introduced to a group years before I started Project Spearhead. I was part of this group that was talking about fighter rights and how they were treated by the UFC, and it's like you were saying, you go down a rabbit hole about unionization. Once you get started, it's like this just makes too much sense. You just have to keep on going."
While fighters like Kajan Johnson and Al Iaquinta have publicly supported Smith and Project Spearhead, Smith said that many did not want to "rock the boat". She did note however that many agreed that something needed to be done.
"Pretty much everyone that I talked to when I was deciding whether or not to dive in, they agreed that there needed to be something, but nobody wanted to be the person to rock the boat," Smith said.
Project Spearhead allows fighters to discreetly sign up for unionization authorization cards, and Smith said that it made a big difference in getting more people on board. She noted that she did get cut by the UFC, but she said it was important for her to help give the fighters some power in either being a true independent contractor or an employee.
"It made such a big difference knowing that there was a confidential avenue towards getting everything that we needed and getting everybody on board," Smith noted. "I was excited about it, and I wasn't worried about risking my job.
"I did get cut from the UFC shortly afterward, but it was important to me in my trying to convince people to do it, to go for it that I could say with 100% confidence that it's confidential because while I believe that yeah, everybody, all the fighters, anybody in general should want to have either the control, the actual control that you get from being a real-life independent contractor. That's cool. Yeah, give me that. I'll take that control, or if we're going to get treated like employees, to be able to get the protections of an employee. It's got to be on one side or the other side."
In 2018, after the UFC paid Smith her show money and win bonus after her opponent Aspen Ladd did not make weight for their upcoming bout, the UFC cut Smith. During this time, Smith was attempting to unionize UFC fighters, so she took her case to the National Labor Relations Board claiming the UFC fired her for trying to unionize, which is illegal.
"Unfortunately, during 2018, shortly after we started getting the card signed, I got cut from the UFC, and so I filed charges against the UFC," Smith recalled. "Then, we went to the National Labor Relations Board, and at first, they did find that my charges had merit, but then, this is where some strings got pulled, a couple hours later, after one department was like, 'Yes, we do think that there's merit.' That would have gone through. Then they would have acted as prosecutor in a case against the UFC on my behalf."
Smith continued explaining how her case was dropped. She said the case was taken over by a different office, and the charges were dismissed claiming that there was no case and claiming that the UFC did not retaliate against Smith for attempting to unionize.
"It was two complaints," Smith stated. "One was that I was retaliated against for trying to unionize, and the other one was that we were misclassified as statutory. We were misclassified as independent contractors and that we were actually employees. A few hours later, the Washington D.C. office, the division of advice were like, 'We're taking over the case.' So they took over the case, and then a couple of months later, in a letter that looked like it had been written by the UFC, they said that they are dismissing the charges.
"They went through the back door on that. They said that there was no sign of retaliation because the UFC said they didn't retaliate, and that they did not need to investigate whether or not we were statutory employees. They were like, we're not even going to touch that because you didn't get retaliated against, so we don't need to do any of this wait."
No clear explanation was ever given for Smith being cut by UFC. Smith also said that there was also no clear reason as to why her case was dismissed.
"In this letter, they were like, the UFC says that it was not retaliation, and they said that they fired you for good reason or whatever," Smith said. "But yeah, that's what I mean. It was just this letter, and we can't even appeal it because they got dismissed. I mean, we tried."
Hausman asked Smith if she had advice to any wrestler or wrestlers that are trying to unionize. Smith admitted that talking to face-to-face is a better approach than what she tried to do, which was mostly an online approach.
"I think talking to the other people face-to-face, the other people that need to sign cards, talking to them face-to-face and having good conversations, explaining what a union can do for them, explaining what they're missing out on by not having a union and really connecting face to face," Smith offered. "I tried to do a lot of it online, and I think it would've worked better if I talked to people more face-to-face."
You can follow Leslie on Twitter @LeslieSmith_GF. Leslie's full interview aired as part of today's episode of our podcast, The Wrestling Inc. Daily. Subscribe to get the latest episodes as soon as it's released Monday - Friday afternoon by clicking here.