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 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 by 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
1973 1,400,000
1974 1,796,000
1975 965,000
1976 1,519,000
1977 1,212,000
1978 1,006,000
1979 1,021,000
1980 795,000
1981 728,900
1982 655,800
1983 909,400
1984 376,000
1985 323,900
1986 533,100
1987 174,400
1988 118,300
1989 452,100
1990 184,900
1991 392,000
1992 363,800
1993 181,900
1994 322,200
1995 191,500
1996 272,700
1997 338,600
1998 386,800
1999 72,600
2000 393,700
2001 99,100
2002 45,900
2003 129,200
2004 170,700
2005 99,600
2006 70,100
2007 189,200
2008 72,200
2009 12,500
2010 44,500
2011 112,500
2012 148,100
2013 54,500
2014 34,300
2015 47,300
2016 99,400
2017 25,300
2018 485,200
2019 425,500 
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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.”

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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.