Leverage Is Everything

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

Hamilton Nolan August 27, 2020

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.

Hamil­ton Nolan is a labor reporter for In These Times. He has spent the past decade writ­ing about labor and pol­i­tics for Gawk­er, Splin­ter, The Guardian, and else­where. You can reach him at Hamilton@​InTheseTimes.​com.

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