Pro Athletes and the Power of Unions

First, the Milwaukee Bucks refused to take the court in their playoff game against the Orlando Magic. Then other teams followed suit, leading to a three-day wildcat strike in the National Basketball Association.

The Bucks were protesting the police shooting of Jacob Blake in nearby Kenosha, Wisconsin, but they helped ignite a wave of athletic activism for racial justice. Other leagues followed suit.

Players in the women’s NBA, who often lead athlete protests, joined the strike. Some Major League Baseball teams — including the Milwaukee Brewers — refused to play multiple games as well. So did Major League Soccer players.

And Naomi Osaka, two-time tennis Grand Slam winner, announced she would not play her semi-final match as a protest. She next appeared wearing a face mask with Breonna Taylor’s name on it.

It was a seismic moment in the history of sports.

We’ve seen players use their platform to advocate for social justice, going all the way back to Jackie Robinson, Muhammad Ali, and Billie Jean King. And we’ve seen players strike for better collective bargaining agreements.

What’s new are these labor actions for social justice — especially across multiple sports and leagues. It’s unprecedented.

These shows of strength and solidarity had immediate consequences, including at the NBA offices, where around 100 employees struck in solidarity. Within a few days, NBA owners and players announced a raft of initiatives to improve voter access in NBA arenas and to invest in a joint social justice coalition among coaches, players, and owners.

As these athletes have shown, striking does not need to be reserved exclusively for higher wages or a better contract. NBA players have a strong players union and an incredibly well negotiated collective bargaining agreement, but they knew they had the power to amplify a national conversation about police violence. It’s inspiring that they chose to use it.

It’s also an inspiring story about the power of all workers.

Few workers are as well paid as professional athletes, and most have more to lose from running afoul of their employers. But there’s a lesson here for them, too: Workers make the company run, not the CEOs and owners. Withholding that work can force immense changes.

After all, if a handful of athletes refusing to play can yield such immediate results, imagine what would happen if long-suffering, underpaid Amazon or Wal-Mart workers — or both — pulled off a national strike. They could virtually shut down the economy and win the fair treatment they’ve been demanding for years.

That’s what postal workers did in a 1970 postal strike, which completely halted all mail deliveries, even as President Nixon attempted to use the National Guard to deliver the mail. Nixon failed miserably, and postal workers won collective bargaining rights, higher wages, and the four postal unions we have today.

As for those well-paid athletes? I hope they’ll force their employers to take tangible steps in other fights — like for racial justice, a fairer immigration system, and action on climate change.

These athletes just showed us all a path forward. I hope more workers are inspired by their example.