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OPINION: Bath Iron Works, the NBA and the untapped power of laborers

September 11, 2020

This piece represents the opinion of the author .
Lillian Eckstein, Lily Anna Fullam

As rumors began to surface that the Milwaukee Bucks were considering sitting out of their upcoming playoff game in protest of the shooting of Jacob Blake by police, many didn’t expect the players to actually abstain from play. When they did, it resulted in a domino effect, with every player in the famed “NBA Bubble” sitting out their respective playoff games as an act of protest against the mistreatment of Black Americans by police.

The league went on pause. The players met with each other, their coaches, management and other influential figures—most notably Charlotte Hornets owner Michael Jordan and former U.S. President Barack Obama. After two days, the players had made their decision: play now, and continue to use their platforms to speak out against racial injustice. The NBA resumed play just three days after the initial act of protest, with the players having earned a modest commitment from the team owners to do more to combat racism. Their jerseys continue to sport messages of social justice, their courts and warm-up shirts continue to rep words of unity and equality and they continue to speak out against racism in post-game interviews and on social media.

It is undeniable that the NBA has contributed to the fight against racial injustice—helping to normalize the phrase “Black Lives Matter,” allowing players to use their voices to speak out against racism and making numerous donations to charities and nonprofits that aim to promote racial equality. However, the players know that what the league and its owners are doing is not enough. Black people are still being killed and abused by police, and racial justice is not close to being achieved. The question remains: how can the players get the commitment to racial justice they believe is necessary from the league? The answer may concern the Bowdoin community more than one would imagine.

Just nine miles up the coast from Brunswick, members of the Local S6 of the Machinists Union work on the construction of destroyer ships for the U.S. Navy at Bath Iron Works (BIW). This comes after the union negotiated a new contract with BIW on August 23. The three-year contract includes a three percent wage increase each year, as well as the continuation of health care benefits and pensions. It also allows the union to maintain leverage in reviewing and negotiating subcontracting proposals. This contract is a massive improvement from BIW’s initial proposal, which attempted to retain the right of subcontracting solely to the company. When negotiations hit an initial stalemate, the 4300-member union voted overwhelmingly in favor of striking. They went on to execute a 63-day strike, committing to withhold their labor until their demands were met. With the looming threat of the Navy taking their business elsewhere, BIW was forced to succumb to most of the union’s demands. The workers held strong, and it paid off in a big way: they got the contract they deserved.

While these mostly blue-collar, Maine-born tradesmen don’t have much in common with the highly-paid, high-fame stars of the NBA, they do have one shared quality: they are all workers, and workers have power over their employers. The members of the Local S6 union effectively utilized their power as laborers, and the NBA players should take note.

The NBA’s halt of play was, simply put, a strike. It was the withholding of labor in an effort to earn concessions from an employer. Whether the strike ended prematurely because the players were satisfied with the league response, because they didn’t want to lose money or because they simply wanted to play, the resumption of the playoffs represents an incredible missed opportunity in a time of dire need for action. While the movement garnered significant media attention, the tangible result of the short-lived strike was an unexceptional commitment by league owners to “do better.” The players want and deserve more.

The league needs its players to survive, similar to how BIW needs the Local S6 to survive. Without the players, nobody would watch; the league would make no money and would soon crumble. And similar to how the workers’ strike at BIW eventually earned the union the commitment from their employer they deserved, a full-on NBA strike would force the league and its owners to enact the necessary change that the players deserve. Although one cannot judge the players for opting to end the strike after just three days, it is apparent that they missed a chance to earn a strong, concrete commitment to change. Hopefully they will someday take a page out of a Maine trade union’s playbook and realize their true power as laborers.


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