Professional Athletes Went On Strike Over Police Brutality. So Let's Call It A Strike.

Even the players themselves might call it a boycott, but the bottom line is they halted the playoffs by refusing to work. That's why it's powerful.

When the Milwaukee Bucks announced Wednesday that they would not be playing their NBA playoff game due to the police shooting of Jacob Blake in Kenosha, Wisconsin, the media couldn’t agree on what to call this extraordinary thing that was unfolding. Were the players mounting a protest? Were they initiating a boycott? Or were they carrying out a strike or work stoppage?

Other teams in the NBA, WNBA and Major League Baseball followed the Bucks’ lead by refusing to suit up and play in solidarity, calling for an end to police brutality against Black people. Professional athletes across sports are throwing their collective weight around in historic fashion, and it’s good to call these actions what they really are: They’re strikes.

“Yes, it’s a strike,” said Bill Fletcher Jr., a longtime labor and community activist. “It’s ridiculous to call it a boycott. This is a strike. And it’s one of the most powerful we’ve seen.”

The actions by athletes may not fit neatly into the traditional notion of a strike, which is why HuffPost, too, referred to the event alternately as a walkout, a protest and a boycott as news developed. (HuffPost is no longer using the term “boycott” to refer to the collective action.) Workers typically carry out strikes against their employers, and they usually do it for economic reasons.

Here, the players’ beef is not with their leagues or their teams’ ownership. They are not trying to win raises or better health care coverage. They are demanding an end to social injustice.

But what’s happening is still a strike, for the same reason it doesn’t fit the definition of a boycott: Workers, not consumers, are applying the real pressure here. NBA fans did not decide to halt the playoffs; the players did. And that matters because it could inspire other workers to push for social justice through their workplaces.

“Workers can’t really boycott their jobs,” said Rebecca Kolins Givan, an associate professor of labor studies at Rutgers University. “The West Virginia teachers did not boycott their work as educators. When Cesar Chavez was organizing farm workers, the customers boycotted. But the workers don’t boycott. They strike.”

In Fletcher’s eyes, calling this scenario a boycott shortchanges the significance of what the players did. Their decision to not take the court appears to have been organic, and it has the potential to inspire all kinds of gutsy demonstrations by non-famous workers around the country.

What was supposed to be Game Five of the Eastern Conference First Round between the Bucks and the Orlando Magic.
What was supposed to be Game Five of the Eastern Conference First Round between the Bucks and the Orlando Magic.
Kevin C. Cox via Getty Images

“When you talk about it as a strike, you’re talking about a process that’s brought on by the workers themselves. It’s self-emancipatory,” he said. “It’s the workers themselves saying, ‘This is what we’re doing. ... We’re the ones that are initiating.’ In this case, the athletes said, ’Enough. Basta.’”

He added, “This is marvelous.”

A labor lawyer might argue that the course taken by players here qualifies as a secondary boycott. That’s when workers take action against an employer in order to pressure a third party ― here, arguably, that third party is the police or government. (Secondary boycotts are illegal in the U.S.) But Moshe Marvit, a labor expert at the Century Foundation think tank, said that argument is merely academic.

“I think this is a strike. It’s workers withholding their labor,” Marvit said in an email. “I guess there’s an argument to be made that strikes have to be for the purpose of gaining a concession from the employer, but I don’t agree that that is an essential component.”

There are reasons the players themselves might opt for the term “boycott” rather than “strike.” Their refusal to work appears to violate their collective bargaining agreements, which, like most union contracts in the U.S., include “no-strike” clauses. That means they don’t have legal protections if they carry out a work stoppage while the contract is in effect. Most strikes in the U.S. happen after a contract has expired and the union and the employer haven’t reached a new agreement.

“This is a strike. And it’s one of the most powerful we’ve seen.”

- Bill Fletcher Jr., labor activist

But as Givan noted, the no-strike rule is not “God’s law.” Workers can still pull off a successful strike even if it violates their contract, so long as they have the organization to do it. In 2018, the West Virginia teachers waged one of the most significant strikes in decades even though under state law they didn’t have the legal right to. (Union officials at the time referred to it as a “walkout” likely for legal reasons.) They pulled it off because the broader community and their own superintendents supported their ultimate aim: greater investment in schools.

NBA players have extraordinary leverage, not just because they are megastars but also because so many of their fans share their concerns about Black citizens being killed by police. The teams and league would risk far greater damage by trying to order players to take the court.

Sharon Block, director of the Labor and Worklife Program at Harvard Law School, said the situation brought to mind the walkout led by employees of Wayfair, the online home furnishings retailer, because the company was supplying beds to U.S. detention centers for migrant children. The dispute was about social injustice ― not working conditions ― and the workers were asking the broader community to stand by them in condemning it.

“Whatever the label is, this is about solidarity,” Block said of the athletes’ move. “It’s not just to advance their own interest, but to lead on a bigger public policy issue. ... They’re asking the public to join them in saying there’s something more important going on than sports.”

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