The Milwaukee Bucks’ strike shows what’s possible when workers band together
Typically, workers strike over pay or benefits, or to protest their employer’s violation of labor law. But last week, NBA players for the Milwaukee Bucks refused to take part in a playoff game against the Orlando Magic to protest the police shooting in Kenosha, Wisconsin, of Jacob Blake, an unarmed Black man who was shot multiple times in front of his children and was subsequently handcuffed to his hospital bed. The Milwaukee Bucks players’ actions sparked a movement within the NBA and larger sports community, with athletes from the WNBA, Major League Baseball, and Major League Soccer following suit in solidarity, causing games to be postponed in their respective leagues. On an unprecedented day in sports history, these athletes showed the power of workers’ collective voice in the workplace.
Professional athletes aren’t the only workers who have banded together to make their voices heard. During the coronavirus pandemic, thousands of essential workers have utilized their right to engage in concerted activity by protesting unsafe working conditions. This was most evident in the walkouts organized by Amazon, Instacart, and Target workers, as well as the dozens of strikes organized by fast-food and delivery workers earlier this spring. Even before the pandemic, data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics showed an upsurge in major strike activity in 2018 and 2019, marking a 35-year high for the number of workers involved in a major work stoppage over a two-year period. The resurgence of strike activity in recent years has given over a million workers an active role in demanding improvements in their pay and working conditions.
Number of workers involved in major work stoppages, 1973–2019
|Year||Number of workers|
Note: The Bureau of Labor Statistics does not distinguish between strikes and lockouts in its work stoppage data. However, lockouts (which are initiated by management) are rare relative to strikes, so it is reasonable to think of the major work stoppage data as a proxy for data on major strikes. Data are for work stoppages that began in the data year.
Source: Bureau of Labor Statistics, “Major Work Stoppages in 2019” (news release), February 11, 2020, and related table, “Annual Work Stoppages Involving 1,000 or More Workers, 1947–2019.”
The Milwaukee Bucks showed that when workers organize and use their collective power, they can create change in their workplace, their industry, and society. However, the erosion of workers’ rights over the last several decades have made it difficult for workers to come together and engage in collective action. When workers are able to join together in a union, they are able to tackle some of the biggest problems that plague our economy, including growing economic inequality and racial and gender inequities. Policymakers must enact reforms that promote workers’ collective power, which in turn can create a more just economy and democracy.