By Greg Brown
Wisconsin’s own Milwaukee Bucks led NBA players in making history on Wednesday when they chose not to take the court for scheduled playoff games. The players’ decision comes as Americans continue to grapple with ongoing racial injustice as shown by the police shooting of Jacob Blake, a Black man, in Kenosha, WI.
Wednesday afternoon, media outlets across the country and around the world began to highlight what they called a “boycott” by NBA players in solidarity with people of color facing deadly police violence and systemic racism across the country.
Those headlines, however, were imprecise at best and outright propagandizing at worst. Their use of the term “boycott” broadly undercuts the power of worker solidarity in the United States.
NBA players did not “boycott” Wednesday’s playoff games. They went on strike.
The difference between these two actions is critical in understanding the potential for labor as a force. When one chooses to “boycott,” they are making a choice as a consumer, withholding purchasing capital as a form of protest. A “strike,” on the other hand, is a collective refusal to work as a form of protest. Definitionally, media outlets’ insistence on referring to the actions of NBA players as a “boycott” is outright incorrect, and one is forced to wonder why that poor word choice took hold among members of the bourgeois press.
The rhetorical shift from worker solidarity to consumer decision appears to follow recent trends in the American understanding of power. Canadian author Naomi Klein discussed the bloated role of consumption in a 2014 article in The Nation.
“Late capitalism teaches us to create ourselves through our consumer choices: shopping is how we form our identities, find community and express ourselves,” Klein said.
Indeed, Americans do tend to find identity through consumption choices, and even well-meaning leftists can fall into the trap of an identity that is merely forged in receipt paper, that comes from the boycott of major corporations and well-known exploiters.
Therefore, it is little wonder that various media outlets chose to frame the action of NBA players as a consumer choice. For many, consumer choices are the extent of appropriate political power, reaching just past the ballot box. That is not to say that boycotts are not useful tools in political action, but the reduction of the collective force of workers to the terms of individual consumer decisions only reinforces the idea that political power, at least for the working class, is only shown through the ways that people spend their money, not the ways that they are able to organize and push for change through collective labor actions.
This current understanding of power through consumption is in no small part the result of decades of conservative action against workers and labor unions, which have historically been the greatest counterweight against capital. Currently, nearly 30 states, including Wisconsin, have “right to work” laws on the books, stripping union organizations of power by requiring them to provide benefits for workers who do not join the union or pay dues. These laws and anti-labor sentiments have driven union membership down significantly over the past 40 years to a mere 10.3% in 2019, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.
As a result, broad American culture does not hold collective labor action in the same regard as it did throughout much of the 20th Century, and capital has no problem with minimizing the effects of labor action, that is, action that could cause workers from around the country to realize their power and demand better conditions for themselves and their families.
The NBA, then, as an organization that is owned by capital, along with large media corporations, has nothing to lose by encouraging a consumerist framing, as many Americans, who have grown used to a public distaste for organized labor since President Ronald Reagan fired striking air-traffic controllers in 1981, will readily accept the rhetorical switch.
Additionally, athletes, including NBA players, have been roundly criticized by reactionary forces over their willingness to speak out against injustice. NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick famously faced enormous backlash over his decision to quietly protest police brutality, drawing the attention of President Donald Trump, who demanded the Wisconsin-born player and others be fired.
Critics of athletes, actors and singers have often tried to separate them from other workers by trying to limit their political speech in ways that would be unthinkable to others. Similarly, the decision to call the NBA players’ strike a “boycott” reinforces this idea of separation. When other workers choose not to work, it is considered a collective labor action, a strike. However, when high-profile workers with elevated visibility choose not to work in order to fight injustice, the powers that be seek to “other” the workers and distance them from the public in order to weaken the bonds of solidarity and commodify the personhood of the strikers.
Some have pointed out that the NBA players are subject to a “no strike” clause, per the association’s collective bargaining agreement, which has led people online to speculate that the use of the term “boycott” in the national press could be an attempt at keeping players from losing their jobs. A closer look, however, shows that the bargaining agreement’s wording transcends the term “strike” and seeks to “prevent each player from refusing, or threatening to refuse, to participate in any scheduled . . . game,” regardless of what they call the action. Even if the media says the players are participating in a “boycott,” the “stoppage of work” puts the players at risk of termination.
In the end, there is no concrete answer for this blatant error. No matter the reason for the word choice, though, it did not take long for people to take notice of the linguistic misstep. Within hours of the initial reports, social media sites buzzed with posts about the wording and its implications.
“NBA players are courageously on strike (withholding labor), NOT boycotting (withholding their $ /purchase). The diff is important bc it shows their power as *workers,*” Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) tweeted Wednesday night.
Some large bourgeois media organizations soon jumped on the opportunity to cash-in on the trending topic with columns and explainers, but the vast majority of outlets continued to insist that these workers did not strike, even as other athletes began to follow suit.
As more people, then, become aware of the NBA players’ actions, it is up to the left to guide the discourse forward in a way that reminds workers of their collective power and the ways that that power can be harnessed for social and economic change. While major media organizations continue to manufacture consent at the whims of capital, working class folks across the country and around the world will face the challenge of creating grassroots solidarity with the victims of racial injustice and the scores of workers willing to lose everything to fight that injustice.