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On the Players Strike

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The NBA is restarting today after the players’ brief strike in support of Jacob Blake. On the Twitter hellscape, there’s plenty of lefties who are unhappy about this, saying that the players won nothing and should continue to not play.

I think this is fundamentally incorrect. What even players who wanted to end the season such as LeBron James didn’t quite get is that the power that they have is inside that bubble. If they leave and go home, the energy dissipates and the media moves on and players start getting ready for next year. Most of the players did want to continue playing so I think a majority more or less do understand this. The players had some levels of demands. But many were pretty well impossible to achieve. You think Robin Voss cares what Giannis has to say about police violence and is going to change his quasi-fascist positions? No way. Hell, Bama and Auburn players could collectively strike and end college football in that state and Alabama Republicans wouldn’t give one inch on their politics.

What the players did accomplish was helping to push Wisconsin’s governor Tony Evers to call a special session of the legislature, which at least puts some pressure on Vos and the Republicans. And they convinced the owners to open their arenas as safe, distanced, in-person voting spaces in November. Now, you might say that’s not enough. I think there is a good critique that the players could have made some additional concrete demands to, say, assist the low-wage stadium workers with more financial assistance. But it’s their strike and their demands. They played their card about as well as it could be played.

I do think there’s a broader critique though of the disappointment among some on the left here. To me, this sort of relates to the general strike fetish, which exists as an easy way to say we should all walk out without doing the work to make it happen or realize that your racist uncle and indifferent neighbor are those who have to act for this to occur. People put a lot of their frustrations, their hopes, and their fears on these actors in almost any strike, and especially a labor action like this one. The inevitable frustration when the revolution doesn’t happen is irritating, but it’s also a reflection of the glacial pace of change combined with the hopelessness that they can make change themselves. Add to that a big dollop of not actually understanding the labor movement or how strikes operate or what leverage the players have and you get your completed soup.

Of course, between now and the finals, the players could strike again for more gains. They could start working in broader coordination with the other professional sports unions over these issues (probably easier with the NFLPA than the baseball and hockey unions that are filled with pretty racist white guys; at least the NFL is majority Black even if the whites are also mostly racist). They have a lot of power right now. They can use it effectively. But they can really only do so if they stick together in the physical space they presently occupy.

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