On August 26th, the Milwaukee Bucks pulled off a Wildcat Strike in response to Jacob Blake being shot in the back seven times in their home state.
It is important to call this form of direct action a strike. Players are not consumers. This was no boycott. This was a work stoppage, and money was lost.
Some players called it a boycott so it is important for them to explain the situation in their own words. Most players, however, are probably not used to taking direct action like this and seldom think of themselves as workers, and as members of a union.
Let’s consider the Milwaukee Bucks as union members, the entire group of players as a union, and the role that the NBA Players Association (their union) had in their negotiations with league officials before they agreed to come back to work.
The Milwaukee Bucks did not make their intentions clear to any of their fellow union members before taking collective action as a team. This is, in part, what made their action a Wildcat Strike. It was not authorized by the union. There is also a no strike clause in place, with their CBA (Collective Bargaining Agreement) active, which also indicates that they engaged in a Wildcat Strike.
If you are any other player in the bubble, if you are LeBron James, if you are Adam Silver, if you are a part of league management, then you were blindsided by this. I do not fault the Milwaukee Bucks for their actions. If they would have went through the proper channels of communication, I am not sure that any work stoppage would have happened. They might have met roadblocks from other players (fellow union members), league officials (bosses), or their own union representatives (their paid staff). Sometimes you need actions to happen organically, within a larger campaign (like Black Lives Matters), to move things forward. The Bucks shocked the country and brought a lot of eyes onto an issue that has been being fought against for decades. There probably is not a way we can quantify the type of impact their strike had and will have.
After the Bucks went on strike, a series of meetings started to happen. Players met with each other. Players met with coaches. Players met with their union representatives. Players met with league officials.
Let’s be clear on two things: 1) The NBA is the best professional sports league in the United States in terms of listening to their players and representing their interests and 2) The NBA is still a business.
The NBA handled this situation better than any other pro sports league would (imagine all of the cringeworthy things that the NFL would have done in response to something like this…) have. A Wildcat Strike, by definition, is illegal. Bucks players and the larger union could have faced stiffer consequences for their actions if the NBA wanted to make things ugly. That is the risk that comes with taking direct action. This is also why it is easier to engage in worksite actions when you have a union than without one (#unionizeeverything).
With that being said, the NBA got what it wanted in the end. Players are returning to work and the money will keep pouring in. We heard interesting stories about Michael Jordan and other sympathetic figures in management trying to bridge the gap with players over the last two days. While those sentiments are nice enough, Michael Jordan still works in management. His goal is to make money, and a lot of it. A work stoppage goes against his bottom line. He was sent in to union bust.
Something interesting came out in a union meeting where Patrick Beverly (LA Clippers Guard) allegedly told one of his union representatives, Michele Roberts, that he pays her salary. Some players allegedly rushed to her defense. Other players said that those words were not said by Beverly. Regardless of the actual words that were spoken, context matters.
Michele Roberts does work for Patrick Beverly and his fellow union members. Her paycheck does come from the union members that she represents. Players are obviously upset with race relations in the United States and want to do something about it. A union representative is supposed to move forward the issues that their membership wants to take on. When Patrick Beverly was said to interrupt Michele Roberts, she was apparently giving a presentation on how much money players could lose by continuing with a general strike. Some players and entire teams had already made their intentions clear, through a vote, that they wanted to strike indefinitely. Black women in the movement get shouted down far too often and Michele Roberts seemed to get some player support in this situation, but this kind of has the feel of a company union to it.
A company union exists when the boss more or less controls the union. The talking points that were being delivered seemed to be designed to get players to return to work instead of finding ways to capitalize on their collective power and make as big an impact as they can on the issues they are passionate about. Maybe those things were talked about too but, when I mentioned conversations that happened over the last couple of days, it certainly seems like conversations occurred between union officials and league officials. It certainly seems like they were using the same set of talking points on players.
The collective action taken by the Milwaukee Bucks was powerful. The players brought a ton of attention to ongoing issues of police brutality and have a new agreement with the league to better support social justice work in this arena (part of players returning to work was an agreement with the NBA to work with them on a number of social justice initiatives). Part of me wonders how that work will be carried out and if that work would have been carried out sooner with a sustained strike. Players seemed ready to do more but it appears as though they were given a strong argument to return to work to protect their money, but also the money of everyone profiting off of their labor. Those very people, who profit the most off of NBA players, are well connected politically and have the means to fight alongside players on the issues being raised. With players going back to work, I’m left wondering if they have the incentive to meaningfully engage in the work that needs to be done to stop black men from getting killed for being black. I mean, the DeVos family owns the Orlando Magic after all.
Are owners like them interested in aiding in the fight for racial justice or do they just want their players back on the court so that they can sell some more jerseys? Are players more likely to get them to support the issues being raised while on strike or while on the court?
Time will tell but the Milwaukee Bucks have given a blueprint for the working class to follow. Whether you have a union or not, work stoppages are effective. If you do not have the resources to do your job, or if your employer is short changing you, or if your employer needs to step up on a broad social issue, striking is one way to get their attention. Hopefully we will see workers talking with one another more, trying to figure out the best way to do things on the job and in society as a whole.
((edit 8/29: A small group of players also met with former President, Barack Obama, before returning to work. He presumably encouraged them to go back to work. This reinforces how the liberal class views collective action, power, and protest.))