Strikes And Power: Reflections On The "Black Lives Matter" Strike Of NBA Players

The NBA players "Black Lives Matter" strike has been criticized by some on the left, suggesting that the "radical action" of the players was co-opted by the "neo-liberal" Barack Obama, much of it riffing off the discussions described in this article. This criticism makes me wonder about the depth of understanding of how strikes and collective action operate. And behind that lack of understanding are some naïve conceptions of power—what it is, of how it is built, and how it can be used.

Strikes are one form of collective action, an organized withdrawal of labor. The strike is designed to generate leverage that can compel action on the part of other actors—almost always, an employer. (Strikes can also be against the government, but most often they are against the government as employer—think of the Teacher Spring Strikes or safety strikes against government compelling teachers to provide in-person education in unsafe conditions.) Consequently, strikes almost always come with specific demands, and the leverage they generate is used to achieve as much of those demands as is feasible.

Strikes can have a symbolic component, an assertion of dignity by the strikers. Think, for example, of the 1968 sanitation workers strike in Memphis, with the famous picket sign "I Am A Man." (Martin Luther King was assassinated in 1968 while supporting that strike.) The most powerful strikes have this component. But the symbolic component of a strike does not exist on its own: it rests on the foundation of the actual demands. In the case of the Memphis sanitation strike, the demands about the terms and conditions of work gave meaning and content to the assertion of dignity. Once this symbolic statement has been made, a decision to remain on strike should be based on what can be done to create maximum leverage and win as much of the demands as possible.

The "Black Lives Matter" strikes, which began with NBA players and spread across professional sports, should be examined in this context. A symbolic statement that "Black Lives Matter" needs to have specific content and demands that can be achieved. There are, of course, a whole set of demands around the systemic, comprehensive reform of policing, but the crucial actors for enacting such reforms are elected officials, not NBA owners. The Milwaukee Bucks did make an effort in this regard, reaching out to the Wisconsin Attorney General (a Democrat) and Lieutenant Governor (an African American Democrat) and making demands that the legislature reconvene to take action on the issue of police violence. But if they were not already aware, they surely quickly came to understand that extreme partisan gerrymandering produced a Wisconsin state legislature that was dominated by far right Republicans who would do nothing to address police violence against people of color. A longer term strategy was required.

Since strikes by professional athletes generate leverage vis-à-vis team owners, not elected officials, what could be done? Once the very important symbolic statement that "Black Lives Matter" was made through a high profile action, what more could be won from team owners that would advance that cause? What President Obama and the players concluded was that the owners could provide some substantive support for free and fair elections in November, by asking owners to make their sports arenas into voting centers. The players then extracted that agreement in return for returning to work.

What is lacking in the critical commentary is any articulation of alternative demands that could have been made of the owners. What specific demands could have been made that would be more productive and would be within the power of the owners to deliver? I am open to the idea that the leverage generated by the strike could have been used more effectively, but I have yet to see any suggestions of what else could have beenachieved (and I readily admit that nothing better has come to my mind).

Instead, the critical commentary seems to revolve around a notion that the symbolic statement "Black Lives Matter" was sufficient cause for a strike and that maintaining that strike over an extended period of time would—in some undefined, unexplained way—force comprehensive, systemic police reforms. At very best, the idea seems to be that maintaining this symbolic strike would somehow lead to a general strike, and that this would, in turn, create the leverage for such fundamental police reform. That, I have to say, is a leap of faith and not a thought-out political strategy that understands power, how to generate it, and how to use it. 

This is a moment where the fundamental reform of policing is needed urgently. The plan to get there needs to be sound, and can’t depend on the romantic thrall of a “field of dreams” theory of general strikes—if you call it, they will come. We have to do better.

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