Like a vintage LeBron James dunk, the pro basketball labor stoppage was remarkable both for its display of strength and for the speed with which it ended.
The episode halted the National Basketball Association playoffs for three days, with games resuming Saturday, and in many ways it illustrates a paradox of today’s labor activism: In a winner-take-all economy, only the stars can reliably exert leverage in the workplace. But the fact that they are winners, with enormous paydays at stake, can also make them cautious.
“Right now, for the first time in my experience with professional sports, the players have the attention of the owners,” said B.J. Armstrong, a player agent who was a guard for the Chicago Bulls when the team won three championships. “But if the players don’t play, what is going to happen? I think the players understand economically what that would do to them.”
It is a pattern that extends far beyond professional sports. In the fall of 2018, highly paid Google engineers joined a walkout of some 20,000 workers to protest various workplace frustrations and revelations that a senior executive received $90 million after a colleague accused him of sexual misconduct.
The company made modest concessions, such as ending forced arbitration for employees who raised complaints of sexual harassment or assault. Then many of the engineers who walked out sought a return to business as usual, and organizers began to find themselves isolated within a few months. Several activists left the company and some were eventually fired. (Google has said they were dismissed because they violated company policies, not because of their activism.)
In April 2019, thousands of Hollywood writers fired their agents at the urging of their union, which claimed that the major talent agencies siphoned off revenue through deals they negotiated with studios that should go to the writers. Many prominent Hollywood creators supported the action initially, but over time some of them voiced doubts about the union’s strategy.
This year, amid concerns from some top writers who also work as showrunners, the union dropped a tentative proposal that studios work only with agencies that the union had agreed on terms with. According to The Los Angeles Times, the showrunners, who have more extensive financial links to the major agencies, did not believe they could staff their productions without the agents.
The union has since reached deals with dozens of agencies, including two of the top four. “It’s been the solidarity of the membership that’s made this campaign successful,” said Neal Sacharow, a union spokesman.
Like workers in these other spheres, the N.B.A. players quickly discovered that they had the power to disrupt a major industry — a power that ordinary workers have gradually lost over the years, as rates of unionization have fallen and companies have outsourced jobs.
“I’ve never seen a day like that, that tested our entire league,” Lloyd Pierce, the coach of the Atlanta Hawks, said in an interview. “That power is tremendous. The opportunity is tremendous.”
But it also underscored to the players that the economic fallout would land heavily on them. “If we do well, they do well,” Tilman Fertitta, owner of the Houston Rockets, told CNBC. “And if the league doesn’t do well, none of us do well. And they realize that.”
Like Silicon Valley engineers and Hollywood showrunners, many of today’s N.B.A. players aren’t so easily classified as “labor.” They are often one-man industrial complexes with interests spanning the globe that make them workers and owners. Many players have shoe lines and invest in technology start-ups, sports franchises, media businesses or production companies.
“When I came into this world, it was the basketball business,” Mr. Armstrong said, alluding to an era when at most one player, his former teammate Michael Jordan, had become an industry unto himself. “Suddenly, it’s turned into the business of basketball.”
In some respects, this gives the biggest stars more economic independence from their teams and the league, and therefore more leverage. “LeBron’s brand extends far beyond the court,” said Amira Rose Davis, an expert on sports and labor history at Pennsylvania State University. “If he’s told to shut up and dribble, he turns around and does a three-part documentary.”
Ms. Davis also noted that Kyrie Irving, another star with an independent brand and business interests, was one of the most outspoken in questioning the resumption of the season after the pandemic shut it down in March.
Still, the psychology of someone who runs his own lucrative venture — something that could, to varying degrees, describe dozens of N.B.A. players — may be fundamentally different from that of a typical worker. “I think there’s more ability to see oneself as an entrepreneur, as a business unto themselves,” Ms. Davis said.
Last fall, when the general manager of the Rockets, Daryl Morey, provoked China’s communist government and its allies by expressing support for protesters in Hong Kong, Mr. James, who is known for his progressive politics, was quick to reprimand him for not being “educated on the situation at hand.” He continued: “So many people could have been harmed, not only financially, but physically, emotionally, spiritually. So just be careful what we tweet and we say.” Critics noted Mr. James’s vast economic interests in China.
Of course, part of the reason that N.B.A. players have a less adversarial relationship with the league and their team owners is that the N.B.A. has often been progressive relative to the N.F.L. and other leagues and gone out of its way to empower players and heed their input, both on basketball issues and social and political questions.
The N.B.A. has allowed players to kneel during the national anthem in recent weeks, and wear protest slogans on their uniforms, albeit only a list of messages that the league agreed to. Players, coaches and owners frequently refer to their relationship as a partnership, and players and owners split revenue evenly.
“Treating it as a normal business, with workers and the boss — I don’t look at the league that way,” Mr. Pierce said. “Our players, when we have issues of concern like yesterday, we’re speaking with our partner, showing up with our partner to let them know, ‘Here are our concerns.’”
In recent years, the league’s relationship with players has been palpably different from that of the N.F.L., where Colin Kaepernick, the former San Francisco 49ers quarterback who started the movement to protest police brutality in the league by refusing to stand for the national anthem in 2016, remains a pariah among many owners.
But the player-owner partnership in basketball reflects another recurring pattern: While employers often seek to undermine lower-paid workers — for example, by retaliating against those who seek to form unions — they typically seek to co-opt workers who are in high demand, giving them at least the illusion of influence.
This has long been the norm in the technology industry, where companies frequently set up so-called employee resource groups in which employees with common interests or identities — like Black workers, gay workers and women — can share advice and raise concerns with management. But those groups generally have little power to force action, and efforts to organize beyond them typically fizzle.
“Management has co-opted relatively easily almost every attempt to organize,” said Alan Hyde, a professor of labor law at Rutgers Law School in Newark who has studied the tech sector. In the days before the Google walkout, Sundar Pichai, the chief executive, sent out an email indicating his support for it, and many supervisors encouraged workers to take part.
Something similar may be happening in the N.B.A., where there are few Black people in coaching and executive jobs even though most players are Black.
Owners appear to be trying to balance expressions of support for the players — they had already committed $300 million over 10 years to an economic empowerment fund this month — with efforts to limit the economic fallout of the players’ activism.
One owner in particular appears to have played a key role: Mr. Jordan of the Charlotte Hornets, who is widely considered the best player of all time. He has worked behind the scenes to support the players in seeking more money for social justice causes, but also favors a continuation of play.
“Quietly I think league executives are scared about this,” said Ms. Rose, the Penn State expert on sports and labor history. “It shows the potential of athletic labor power and that’s why they’ll try to limit it by trying to co-opt it, contain it and declaw it.”