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The NBA strike is a big moment for athlete activism — and the labor movement in America

Last week’s wildcat strike showed the power of striking for social movements.

All NBA playoff games were postponed after players staged a walkout on August 26, 2020, to protest the police shooting of Jacob Blake in Kenosha, Wisconsin.
Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

The sports world erupted in protest last week in response to the police shooting of Jacob Blake in Kenosha, Wisconsin. On August 26, Milwaukee Bucks players announced just prior to game time that they would not participate in their first-round playoff game against the Orlando Magic. The rest of the NBA playoff teams soon joined in this wildcat strike.

Their actions reverberated. Tennis star Naomi Osaka voluntarily forfeited her semifinal match before the next day’s games in the Western & Southern Open the following day, and officials suspended play as a result. Some MLS, NHL, NFL, MLB, and WNBA teams also followed suit, with the New York Mets and the Miami Marlins, among others, leaving the field after a silent protest while placing a Black Lives Matter T-shirt over home plate. The NBA strike came to an end and playoffs resumed a couple days later after the league secured some concessions, including the use of several basketball arenas as voting locations and the formation of a league-wide social justice coalition.

In an era marked by historic levels of economic inequality and mass mobilization in response to Black Lives Matter and the actions of the Trump administration, we ought not to be surprised by this latest burst of activism. Today’s professional players join a long lineage of athletes, from Muhammad Ali to Billie Jean King, who used their careers as a way to protest social injustice.

But something different also happened last week. The NBA players went on strike, shutting down their industry (at least temporarily) and demanding concessions from their employers before returning to the court. This act of workplace stoppage represents the next step in athlete protests. Beyond raising awareness or starting conversations, striking has the potential to bring about change by grinding an industry’s gears to a halt.

The act of striking has been dramatically on the rise during the Trump administration. The number of union-led workplace stoppages — including those involving 1,000 or more people — has exploded in the last few years. Many have focused more narrowly on the wages and conditions at the worker’s job site, such as the teacher’s strikes throughout a number of traditionally conservative states in 2018 and 2019, which won the support of the public and — perhaps just as important — a notable increase in pay and benefits.

But increasingly, they are also being used to promote causes beyond improving workplace conditions. New York taxi drivers struck in 2017 to protest the Trump administration’s so-called Muslim ban. In the last few months, longshore workers on both US coasts struck for Black Lives Matter (not surprising, given the group’s longer history of striking to protest police violence, war, and civil rights).

That these actions are being carried out by unionized workers isn’t a coincidence. Nonunionized workers are frequently classified as “at will,” meaning that they can be terminated for just about any reason, and certainly for political protest. Constitutional rights do not automatically extend to the workplace, and indeed, the rights of the employer can be more accurately understood as authoritarian.

Meanwhile, unionized workers are protected by national labor laws against unjust termination, and strikes and work stoppages are importantly, if conditionally, protected under the law. National labor law requires a “direct nexus” between the work stoppage and the conditions of the workplace, but the National Labor Relations Board has often interpreted this nexus in broad strokes. In 2017, the NLRB protected the rights of workers to strike on behalf of the rights of immigrants, arguing that there was both a connection to the striking workers’ employment conditions and that employers had the potential to help respond effectively by leveraging their power with the federal government.

The leading role of unionized workers in this era’s protests also gets at labor’s potential to drive fundamental change. Unionized workers are part of organizations that are designed to promote solidarity, mobilize collectively, and protect their workers from employer threats of coercion. Recent research has shown how unions mobilize workers to vote, learn about politics, and even reduce their feelings of racial resentment. The close linkages between these unionized athletes, political protest, and the growing social movement around Black Lives Matter remind us of the importance that labor unions offer for progressive politics and the future growth of the Democratic Party.

Of course, unions are not a panacea by themselves. Indeed, the labor movement has a long and quite complicated relationship to civil rights and the events that have led to Black Lives Matter. Even in the current era, in which many unions have emphatically embraced diversity and civil rights in their workplaces and in politics, national unions have wrestled with the presence of law and immigration enforcement and other correction officer unions within their ranks. (Police unions, for example, are known for strongly protecting members who have records of violent interactions with citizens.)

Moreover, not every unionized worker has the power and leverage of often well-known and extremely well-paid professional athletes. Taxi drivers taking a stand against racism do so within an industry under economic threat, and many unionized and would-be unionized workers — from those in slaughterhouses to graduate teaching assistants to gig economy workers — face severe threats of termination from employers facing labor laws with only limited weapons.

But that does not take away from both the historic events of the past week and the path they pave for future action. Movement mobilization and union organization have and can reinforce and benefit from each other, providing and sustaining a potentially transformative political moment.

Paul Frymer is a professor of politics at Princeton University. He writes about American labor and racial politics.

Jacob M. Grumbach is an assistant professor of political science at the University of Washington. He researches the political economy of the United States with a focus on race and public policy and teaches courses in statistical methodology.

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