By Furqan Mohamed
Editor - Paola Duran
When you hear the word "strike", you might think of the trades, like coal miners and construction workers. Or maybe, school teachers come to mind. In a capitalistic society, there are workers and owners. Workers, throughout history, have used strikes as a tool to remind owners that their labour is valuable and to negotiate things like better working conditions, salary, and benefits. The official dictionary definition of a "strike" is "a refusal to work organized by a body of employees as a form of protest, typically in an attempt to gain a concession or concessions from their employer."
Earlier this month, we saw NBA players from the Milwaukee Bucks lead a strike during Game 5, in light of viral police violence against unarmed Black men and women, specifically Jacob Blake's attack. The Buck's, led by player George Hill, said deciding not to play was to demand "... the Wisconsin State Legislature to reconvene after months of inaction and take up meaningful measures to address issues of police accountability, brutality and criminal justice reform." Even though the strike didn't last that long, the mere idea that it's possible can be inspirational to workers wanting to demand justice for themselves and others everywhere. The NBA strike can also lead us to have a conversation about what it means for notable people to take action during tense political and social moments.
It can be weird or even confusing to consider basketball players as "labourers", but they are, albeit a unique kind. Remember, NBA players don't own the teams they play for; they are just employees of said teams. Unlike Amazon workers or grocery store cashiers, players' labour can't be replicated, and they can't be replaced, making them, essentially, the world's only kind of indispensable worker. NBA players are unionized labourers, they do produce a valuable good (their games, that we consume for entertainment), they are paid a salary, and have bosses who make a sizable profit from their labour. Basketball teams have owners, sponsors, and other stakeholders who gain a lot on the backs of basketball talent. Not to mention that dozens of corporations stand to make money from the advertisements. Challenging these authority figures and beneficiaries of labour by having strikes has been a tool used by workers everywhere, pushing economic and social change. The jarring nature of an NBA strike is the point, as it's the only way for unique workers like basketball players to have an impact is to have attention-grabbing, unprecedented actions.
This political action on the part of NBA players is different from other kinds of worker-led movements in two ways. One, many media outlets reported this to be a "boycott". However, that isn't what happened here. Workers can't "boycott" their place of work. And secondly, even if one does acknowledge the NBA players' action as a strike, it's a little inaccurate to call what happened simply a strike. The better term is "wildcat strike", sometimes referred to as a wildcat strike action, is an action taken by unionized workers without the permission and/or support of their union leadership. Wildcat strikes are a bold move, taken by workers when it's clear that those with authority, even those meant to represent them, will not support them in accomplishing their goals.
Wildcat strikes or any action taken by workers to achieve concessions has been a tool used since capitalism's inception. However, not all actions and activists are treated the same. So who exactly gets to lead a movement? There is a hierarchy of who is paid attention to when it comes to activism, even within celebrity culture. George Hill and Milwaukee Bucks players started the strike, and it gained momentum. Then, more famous and wealthier players LeBron James and Chris Paul met with former U.S. President Barack Obama, who essentially discouraged the strike in favour of "meaningful engagement", such as "establishing social justice coalitions". George Hill and the Miuakee Bucks started a strike that would, in theory, affect the economic viability of their team, which makes money for their state. No playing means no game, which means no advertising revenue for big companies who donate to political campaigns - all done in hopes of forcing their home state government officials to pursue justice for Jacob Blake.
In the whirlwind of celebrity voices, it's imperative that we do not miss the most important fact here: wildcat strikes happen when other methods of activism on the part of workers have been exhausted. Athletes have been on social media, taken knees, and worn face-masks with the names of those murdered by police. They have donated to multiple charities and encouraged their fans to register to vote. We have seen over the course this new moment of social consciousness that the politics of "we see you, and we're listening" does not cut it anymore. We are past the point of "establishing social justice coalitions". This strike was commiserate with this moment; because we're going through something significant, something big must happen in turn.
Mr. Obama enjoys a degree of acclaim and affection, but he does not hold any political office anymore and thus wields no legislative power. Nor is he in any capacity a labour activist or scholar. Why exactly was Mr. Obama consulted? The only reason that comes to mind is that he is a notable person, and beloved former president. Why did LeBron James suddenly become the point-person for thoughts on the strike? He is not a union representative for NBA players, and he did not start the strike either. He's simply an incredibly talented athlete with his heart in the right place. While one can admire both Obama and James, it is important to note that neither of them, not as a president or a player, has any skills or tools needed to meet this moment, only their popularity. We should have been hearing from George Hill and other lesser-known NBA players who started the strike, and from Black thinkers and activists involved in labour and worker's movements. Notable people can have an input on social justice issues: LeBrown James is a basketball player, so the strike would affect him, and both him and Barack Obama are Black men who are entitled to their opinions on policing and social justice. We just need to sincerely examine which voices are elevated and why.
While we should always interrogate celebrity activism, there is value in having workers as notable and unconventional as professional basketball players flex their power. It can inspire so many ordinary workers, such as fast-food employees and healthcare workers, to stand up for themselves and demand justice for themselves, their surrounding communities, and even their fellow workers around the world. Unions can be powerful forces for change, that can encourage people to work collectively and promote solidarity. In 2014, The Harvard University Press found that unions are often the first introduction to politics working-class people have. In Canada, about 30% of workers belong to unions, nurses, teachers, journalists and professional athletes, as well as the more traditionally unionized occupations like retail workers, miners, electricians and other construction trades workers. That's about four million Canadians who belong to a union, who have representation, job security, and can afford to pay taxes to support the growth of public services like schools, clean water, roads, electricity and health care, which benefit other citizens around them. This does not mean that all unions are automatically good, as police unions (as we are learning at this moment) for example, have historically protected members who have records of interacting violently with citizens.
Athletes have always had a role in our collective political imagination, from Muhammed Ali to Billie Jean King, and unions, as a means of attaining social justice, are having a new light shined on them in the wake of COVID-19. Both these facts combined lead us to appreciate just what NBA players did and didn't do, and what it means for future forms of activism. The NBA strikes have shined a light on the power of unions, and the power workers have with their labour. The wildcat strike could have been the start of a national strike, but instead the culture deferred to Barack Obama, and LeBron James. Celebrities can be useful in getting attention to movements, but there are limits to their power, and incidental consequences for only elevating their opinions, and not others. In this moment of profound social change, we should continue to assess the tools and tactics used to achieve justice, for everyone.