Leverage Is Everything

The striking NBA players have inherent power, but so do you.

Hamilton Nolan

NBA players are on strike. Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

The power of a nuclear bomb is not so much generated as it is unleashed. Atoms carry that mighty power at all times — it just takes an action to let it out. Working people have the same kind of power. It’s leverage. Many of us walk around carrying it for our entire lives without ever using it. Seeing that power demonstrated is the best way to remind everyone that they can use it, too.

We are in the midst of an unprecedented wave of wildcat strikes in major sports leagues. (Withholding labor is a strike; a wildcat strike is when workers strike on their own, without the formal approval of their union and often in violation of their contract. Don’t call it a boycott.”) We can’t really call them sudden, because they’re a reaction to hundreds of years of racial oppression, but they are happening with stunning speed.

Wednesday, the basketball players on the Milwaukee Bucks decided on their own to sit out of their NBA playoff game in protest of the shooting of Jacob Blake by police in Kenosha, Wisconsin. Players on other teams, inspired, followed their lead, causing the league to hastily postpone” all of the day’s playoff games, to avoid being forced to cancel them one by one due to player walkouts. Within hours, players in the WNBA and in Major League Soccer and in Major League Baseball and even announcers were stopping work as well. History is being made, just that fast.

Here I just want to make a simple point: these NBA players may be rich and famous, but in this case, they are not doing anything that you can’t do too. The power they are exercising here is not athletic power, but labor power. They are members of a union, the National Basketball Players Association, and that union has a contract with the NBA, and that contract prohibits them from striking. Yet they struck. And not only did they get away with it, but it was a spectacular public success. They pulled off a wildcat strike because they have leverage. Because they can. That is the only power that really matters in the workplace. Everything else is imaginary.

Think about it: What would happen if the NBA started waving its contract, with the no strike” clause, and criticizing the players for their work stoppage, and threatening harsh legal retaliation? The NBA would be crushed by a wave of bad PR, first of all. That would be bad for business. And what would be worse for business would be the fact that there would be no business — if the players don’t play, there is no NBA. Period. Being a professional basketball player is certainly a more elite and high-skill profession than what you or I do for a living, but these players are exercising leverage that we all have in common.

If we don’t work, there is no business, and there is no money for the boss. The entire history of corporate labor relations in America has been one long effort by employers to obscure, hide, and stifle this fact. Yet it remains the case that we have the power, because we do the work. And bosses will go to great lengths, and make many concessions, to ensure that they’re never forced to do the work themselves.

The rules that govern organized labor in America are not fair. The bulk of labor law has been written to favor business, which has the money and financial incentive to spend decades lobbying to make labor laws more and more hostile to workers. The law harshly restricts who is allowed to unionize, and what rights they have, and when they are legally allowed to strike.

The Milwaukee Bucks have performed the valuable service of showing us that all of those laws don’t mean jack shit. Leverage is timeless and sits outside the law. It is rooted in the fabric of reality, like physics. Why did the NBA rush to release statements about how it supports” these unauthorized strikes which very well may end their season? In what sense do the owners of these teams support” these actions, which may cost them millions of dollars, that they would have warned against right up until the moment they happened? They support” the players here in the sense that they have no choice but to do so. What would happen if the NBA responded to these unauthorized strikes by locking the players out next season, as would be their right under the contract? Would all of the world’s NBA fans sit calmly and continue tithing money to basketball team owners in order to preserve the sanctity of contracts? No. What would happen is there would be no NBA.

And if all of the players got sick of the owners and their contracts and decided to pack up and start their own basketball league that they themselves ran, fans would watch that, because that is where the good basketball would be. The players make money for the owners, not vice versa. This is the key to their leverage. With an understanding of this fact, their options are limitless. The league can holler and yell and cajole and object, but ultimately it will come along. The workers have the power.

What is happening in pro sports is inspiring. But I understand that some may also find it dispiriting, because they may think, I am not a pro athlete. I am not rich or famous. I have a regular job with little power. I cannot exercise leverage in the same way.”

Wrong. Though it is easier for the boss to replace you or me at work than it is to replace an NBA player, it is hard for any boss anywhere to replace everyone. To function, businesses require workers. Collective action, therefore, is the real source of your leverage. It is the ability of you and your coworkers to deprive the business of the labor it needs to function. Solidarity is power for everyone.

I once went to a union rally for a group of janitors at an airport in Minneapolis. As they marched through the terminal waving signs, they chanted: Let the bosses clean the toilets! Let the bosses clean the toilets!” They understood leverage. It’s true that NBA players have power because the bosses can’t dunk. But the bosses don’t want to clean the toilets either. You might be surprised what you can win by threatening to make the ownership class give up its most treasured privilege: to be paid without doing real work.

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Hamilton Nolan is a labor writer for In These Times. He has spent the past decade writing about labor and politics for Gawker, Splinter, The Guardian, and elsewhere. More of his work is on Substack.

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