“I wish I could be nice about it, I wish I didn’t have to be so militant, but it’s impossible to orchestrate revolution while wearing silver gloves.”
The camera pans around David Starr, yoked as always, with a megaphone in his right hand and an enthralled crowd behind him. A T-shirt clings to his torso, with one word spread across its chest: “UNIONIZE.”
In the professional wrestling business, this is called a “promo.” David Starr was gearing up for a match with the Irish firebrand Jordan Devlin for the Over The Top Wrestling Championship last October; but first, they needed to fire shots at each other over YouTube to stoke their beef, and foreshadow their final act together. As far as his political beliefs go, Starr tells me he was first radicalized in 2016 after Trump was elected, and today, he considers himself a bona fide socialist. On January 4, he appeared on the People For Bernie Twitter account; he has referred to billionaires as “economic terrorists,” and he’s worn wrestling trunks emblazoned with both the Israeli and Palestinian flags.
They say the best wrestling characters are usually just the personalities of the performers, but turned up to 11. That certainly seems to be the case with David Starr; he’s bringing his progressivism to a fist fight.
“Jordan represents capitalist structure that seeks to end everything we love about professional wrestling,” he says later in the video. Starr went on to win the championship with a vicious lariat.
In 2020, democratic socialism has firmly centered itself in the mainstream political discourse. If there was ever to be a wrestler who embraced class struggle, the Bernie left consolidated in powerbombs and dropkicks, Starr is up to the task. But throughout most of his blood feud with Devlin, Starr played the bad guy—”working heel,” in industry parlance. Like WWE superstar Daniel Bryan before him, who sneered a foreboding message of inarguable environmental decline with enough withering conceit that it made him a renegade, David Starr manages to morph into a jealous psychopath even as he’s fighting for the working man.
“There’s absolutely a way to utilize leftism [as a heel.] I mean, Mao was a leftist and a murderous dictator. Stalin was as well. The difference comes with the motivations,” he tells VICE, over a WhatsApp call. “There are definitely ways to portray left extremism in a negative way.”
The thing is, David Starr puts his money where his mouth is. In 2019, Starr founded We The Independent, a merchandising company that sells hard-left sloganeering, like those aforementioned UNIONIZE shirts, or a graphic tee featuring a zombified Starr under the words EAT THE RICH in a grindcore font. A portion of the proceeds generated from We The Independent sales is used to pay wrestler’s dues at Equity UK, a labor organization dedicated to the performing arts and one of We The Independent’s primary partners. Their goal is to build a more sustainable working environment for wrestlers on the indie circuit. As much as Starr subverts capitalism with suplexes in the ring, he’s also putting in the activist hours on the frontlines with millions of other newly inspired, newly red young people.
Photo courtesy of David Starr
Of course, this is the wrestling business, an industry where unionizing efforts have never managed to earn a stronghold. The WWE, a public company that’s currently trading for $60 a share, keeps all of its employed talent in Independent Contractor limbo. Even John Cena needs to book his own travel and lodging, out of his own expense account, for each show on the company tour. This makes the wrestling world an outlier to practically every major sports enterprise in America; the NBA, NFL, MLB, and NHL all have accompanying unions and a collective bargaining agreement with their team owners. No such infrastructure exists for wrestlers.
Starr understands these pitfalls. The average wrestler might work for dozens of different promotions in a year, making it impossible for workers to bargain with one single corporate entity. A fully comprehensive wrestling union, says Starr, requires us to believe in a very different world.
“People get so jaded from wrestling, nobody knows what’s real or what’s fake,” he says. “People look at the finish line, and it seems like such a daunting task. It’s a total change from what we’re used to and we can’t imagine things being different.”
But already, Starr thinks that We The Independent has accomplished things that ought to make the world believe that a more equitable future might not be that far away.
“The organizations we speak to say, ‘Reach for the low-hanging fruit.’ And that’s what we were saying. The first thing we wanted to get done is to make sure that there was food and water available at all wrestling shows for wrestlers. Just something to eat. Most of us drive hours and hours back and forth without a hotel,” he says. “We also got Equity to push their insurers to include wrestlers in their disability welfare policy. Equity used our campaign to force that issue.”
Eventually, Starr wants to see a minimum wage structure, and a network of wrestling companies that can ensure that there’s security for independent wrestlers. Like the saying goes, there’s power in a union. Especially a union jumping from the top rope.