Boxer Rebellion

Boxers union boosters say they're sparring now to prepare for a knockout later
Steve Satterwhite

Not many of the professional boxers pounding the punching bags at Gerrits Leprechaun gym in northern downtown Miami have seriously considered the concept of a boxers union -- an organization like the ones that represent athletes in other professional sports.

At Gerrits: "I think I've heard about that," says Carmelo Ramos, taking a break from shadowboxing, sweat trickling down his prominent cheekbones. "It could be good, but I haven't really thought about it."

Sylvan Plowright, however, would welcome the solidarity of a union. "Our career is short," says Plowright, a tall, skinny middleweight. "When we retire we don't have anything. There's nothing to say we were a fighter, except maybe pictures. We need to be affiliated with something that could give us some security."

Plowright says he's been injured in the ring and has seen other men pummeled into comas. Even if they have insurance coverage, he adds, it never seems to be enough, and he and his colleagues pay for a lot of their own medical care. It bothers him that promoters can pay pretty much whatever they feel like. "And who am I going to complain to?" Plowright wonders. "Yeah, we need a union, and we need to know what our rights are."

"These shortcomings can all be solved with one concept -- a nationwide boxers union," concludes Paul Johnson, former pugilist and current chairman of the Boxers' Organizing Committee (BOC), a group that for 13 years has been gathering nationwide support for an organization that has never before existed. But now, proponents declare, their slow, steady work is paying off.

Other professional athletes in the United States have long had the opportunity to negotiate salary and benefits with team owners through players organizations; the unions representing pro baseball and football players were set up in the '70s. Boxing, however, isn't a team sport with clearly defined employer and employee bargaining units. A fighter, for example, might be working for one promoter one night and another promoter the following month on another card in another city. Unless pro boxers are from a small elite group, they have virtually no input when it comes to arranging a match in which they will risk their lives.

Over the years many celebrated champions have advocated the establishment of some kind of unionlike system, but organizers need more than celebrity lip service. Only in the past three or four years has broad support emerged. Backers include U.S. Sen. John McCain, AFL-CIO president John Sweeney, the Association of Boxing Commissions, and the professional baseball, football, and hockey players associations. The BOC also has collected letters of support from many union locals across the nation, including the American Federation of Television and Radio Artists (AFTRA).

Congress recently passed two new federal laws strengthening protection for professional boxers; while the legislation does not address the union issue, organizers believe it has raised awareness of the need for industry reform and thus will help their cause. The Professional Boxing Safety Act of 1996 and the Muhammad Ali Boxing Reform Act, signed by President Clinton this past May, set minimum safety standards. The laws also clamp down on some of the most egregious practices by promoters, managers, and sanctioning organizations. The 1996 bill requires promoters to buy insurance policies covering each fighter during a match.

"My belief is the Muhammad Ali bill and a union together are a great one-two punch combination to give a voice to the most important element in the boxing equation," declares former light heavyweight world champion José Torres, who has also served as chairman of the New York State Athletic Commission and president of the World Boxing Organization. "We have never had a voice in the past." Torres is an accomplished author who has penned a book and several articles. For a piece soon to be published in Parade magazine, he interviewed McCain, who later agreed to meet with representatives of the BOC. (A meeting date hasn't been set.)

"Senator McCain certainly believes no other sport needs a union as much as professional boxing," affirms Paul Feeney, a Senate commerce committee staffer. "He also agrees the only way to create a pension plan for boxers is to have a union, not for the government to impose a plan. [The California State Athletic Commission does administer a pension plan for boxers, although it applies only to earnings from contests in that state.] The question now is, since in our country unions are created by workers getting together, how do you get all the boxers in, say, Tennessee to stand up and say yes, because a lot are independent contractors."

By methodically gathering support the BOC hopes to convince boxers as well as the real powers in the sport -- television executives -- that a union is in their best interest. "We've been taking time to slowly get the word out that this is happening," Johnson says. The committee, headquartered in a United Auto Workers' office in Bloomington, Minnesota, has been directing a public-information campaign as well as lobbying a host of sports and entertainment personalities and union officials. Among the seven committee members are boxing notables Juanito Ibarra, Roy Foreman (George's brother), Torres, and long-time South Florida fight impresario Irving Abramson.

Johnson says Pete Hamill, Norman Mailer, and Budd Schulberg, all celebrated writers, have agreed to serve on a planned pension trust fund advisory board. As for the past and present boxing greats who have lent their names to the cause, BOC literature lists Muhammad Ali, George Foreman, Roy Jones Jr., Shane Mosley, Oscar De La Hoya, Mike Tyson, Fernando Vargas, Felix Trinidad, Bernard Hopkins, and Arturo Gatti.

At two symposiums hosted by Fordham University in New York during this past March and April, Johnson and executives from HBO and Showtime discussed the need for a union. "I think boxing is in desperate need of overhauling," comments one panelist, Jay Larkin, a Showtime vice president. "The Muhammad Ali bill is a good start. Although a boxers union is a very well intentioned thing, it has to be better thought out."

The BOC hopes all the talking and lobbying will lead up to one grand event: a major title fight that will feature prominent figures from the world of sports and entertainment who will endorse the union concept. (For example, according to Johnson, members of the Screen Actors Guild have promised to attend.) The plan is for boxers to sign a union charter in the ring and one of the provisions would have fight revenues funneled into a pension trust fund. Never mind that arrangements have fallen through several times over the past decade. In boxing there's always some glitch, crisis, or feud. "It's an organizer's dream, to instantly get the word out across the United States," Johnson says. "Some of the boxers in the smaller gyms are concerned about repercussions from the boss or manager, but once they see the fight and have champions come forward… they aren't going to be afraid to join a union."

Organizers then plan a drive to obtain the signatures of hundreds of boxers on union cards, a preliminary step toward union representation. And Sweeney's AFL-CIO would have to charter the group. "[BOC members] called me up almost three years ago," says Peter Rider, assistant director of organizing for the AFL-CIO. "I've been giving them advice since."

Skeptics, however, question whether it can be accomplished. Boxing is a solitary sport, and boxers aren't usually joiners. A very small percentage (from 1 to 3 percent) would essentially subsidize the union, while many smalltimers wouldn't want to have dues deducted from their measly purses. And legal questions may arise. For example the National Labor Relations Act, which governs labor union activity, doesn't grant independent contractors the right to bargain collectively. Rider acknowledges the legal uncertainty but asserts that boxers could be considered employees of the bout promoters who hire them.

"There is some case law ruling that boxers are employees [as opposed to independent contractors]," Rider says. "And if no one decides to fight the efforts to organize [a boxers union], questions of employer-employee relationships don't come up. Thus the [BOC] has spent a fair amount of time getting the money people in the industry to see that a union can help them as well as the boxers."

Hank Kaplan of Miami, a long-time authority on the industry and friend to many world champions, is skeptical. "I don't believe in [a boxers union]; I just don't think it's practical," he opines. "Boxers don't have the ability to organize themselves. Boxing is a kind of unique sport, and the management of it is different than any other sport. Possibly there should be laws which force boxers into establishing their own pension fund."

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