Why the NBA Wildcat Strike Is So Important

Despite a no-strike clause in their contract, playoff teams joined the Bucks in refusing to play and demand justice for Jacob Blake.
August 27, 2020, 7:11pm
In protest of the Kenosha, Wisconsin police shooting of Jacob Blake, the Milwaukee Bucks refused to play their playoff game against the Orlando Magic—who also did not play and refused the Bucks’ forfeit—on Wednesday night and instead stayed in the locker

In protest of the Kenosha, Wisconsin police shooting of Jacob Blake, the Milwaukee Bucks refused to play their playoff game against the Orlando Magic—who also did not play and refused the Bucks’ forfeit—on Wednesday night and instead stayed in the locker room to speak with Wisconsin’s Attorney General and Lieutenant Governor.

"Despite the overwhelming plea for change, there has been no action, so our focus today cannot be on basketball,” the Bucks said in a statement. “We are calling for justice for Jacob Blake, and demand the officers be held accountable. For this to occur, it is imperative for the Wisconsin State Legislature to reconvene after months of inaction and take up meaningful measures to address issues of police accountability, brutality, and criminal justice reform.”

Within hours of the Bucks’ work stoppage, other teams in the NBA playoffs launched their own and were joined by sport leagues across the country. Every other playoff team scheduled to play that night refused, and teams in the WNBA, MLB, and MLS walked off the field during their games.

Many have called these work stoppages a boycott, but they're actually strikes. In fact, what these teams are doing right now is called a wildcat strike—a work stoppage without union approval, in this case the National Basketball Players Association. Confusing the two diminishes the fact that the players are risking their incomes and careers, because they are bound by “no-strike” clauses in their collective bargaining agreement. Across the country, workers in numerous industries are similarly barred from expressing their discontent. 

A boycott is when an individual or group protests by withholding money and refusing to consume some company’s product or service. The #StopHateForProfit campaign, organized by activists protesting how Facebook handles hate speech and misinformation, was a boycott—advertisers refused to pay Facebook to place their advertisements. A strike is when an individual or group protests by withholding their labor and refusing to work—these athletes are refusing to work and withholding their labor, not their money.

What makes the NBA strike a “wildcat” strike is the fact that the NBA’s Collective Bargaining Agreement (the contract between the NBA and the players' union that dictates the "terms and conditions of employment") explicitly prohibits strikes. Section 30.1 is titled "No Strike" and reads:

"During the term of this Agreement, neither the Players Association nor its members shall engage in any strikes, cessations or stoppages of work, or any other similar interference with the operations of the NBA or any of its Teams."

The CBA, originally signed in 2017 and scheduled to last in 2023, is currently being renegotiated in response to the coronavirus pandemic and the effects it will have on working conditions and league revenue projections. 

In the United States, no-strike clauses are common in collective bargaining agreements. They allow employers to take away workers’ key threat: withholding their labor. Under the National Labor Relations Act of 1935, strikes are protected to an extent, but highly regulated. A strike may not be in support of an "unfair" labor practice, in violation of a no-strike clause, in the form of a sit-down strike, and so on. In 2019, the National Labor Relations Board ruled that wildcat strikes are not protected if striking employees become aware their union "disapproved of and disavowed the strike." To violate these rules is to open up oneself to being punished by your union, or the strike being found unlawful and its participants legally fired, or striking workers being indefinitely replaced.

U.S. labor law is born out of a violent history. Charles Lindholm, an anthropology professor at Boston University, found that “the United States had more deaths at the end of the nineteenth century through labor violence‚in absolute terms and in proportion to population size—than any other country except Tsarist Russia.” Labor violence here refers to violence against workers carried out either by private security forces funded by Gilded Age robber barons or by public security forces funded by the government.

Today, labor law is less violent and constructed to prevent general strikes and labor unrest with more finesse. This doesn’t necessarily empower workers, but leads to more docile relations. Often, this means the process of reaching a collective bargaining process can end up “routinizing and bureaucratizing conflict” as UC Santa Barbara history professor Nelson Lichtenstein told Motherboard. Strikes are defused by a long series of negotiations, fake outs, and attempts at stalling by the employer and its lawyers that stretches out weeks, months, or years. 

This means that strikes—if they happen at all—almost always happen during pre-set periods of negotiation. For example, there is widespread labor unrest in Major League Baseball, but there is little chance of a strike until the current collective bargaining agreement between the Major League Baseball Players Association and the league expires on December 1, 2021. Many analysts believe that there will be a strike after it expires, because the league and the players are at odds on many issues. The same isn’t true of Europe, where the right to strike is generally much stronger across the continent than in any part of the United States. 

And so the fact that the NBA strike happened suddenly, and in violation of its current CBA, is notable, laudable, and particularly risky.

Boycotts are for consumers. Strikes are for workers. And while no-strike clauses shouldn’t exist, they do for many workers across this country. A piece of paper shouldn’t stand in between people and a better contract, fair working conditions, or a better world. The choice to risk one’s job and career—especially one that pays as well as an NBA player—is a serious one that warrants a clear understanding so that we can better make that decision ourselves and support those who decide to strike, even if we don’t. 

And even though anonymous and unconfirmed reports are emerging that players have “voted” to continue playing, no games have been played. Even if the NBA resumes in some fashion, the story isn’t over: the toxic labor relations at play will still be there, and so will the inhuman police violence that sparked the players’ labor action.