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.