One of the reasons NBA players should ultimately resolve this conflict — and have greater influence than most workers in such a dispute — is that they are, unlike 88 percent of their fellow Americans, members of a labor union. This gives them certain contractual rights such as job security, health and retirement benefits, and a significant voice in the way their company is run.
The nation’s historic rise in income inequality and insecurity has been matched by a decline in union membership. Half a century ago, roughly one in threeAmerican workers was a union member, whereas today union membership has dropped to just 7 percent in the private sector and less than 12 percent overall, the lowest in 70 years. For workers, this decline can mean the absence of job security or benefits, as well as falling wages. In 2010, union members made on average $10,000 a year more than non-union workers, and economists have shown that even the prospect of unionization has led to rising wages in different industries.
When you’re at the mercy of an employer without a labor union to support you — the situation that nine out of 10 American workers face — inequality is guaranteed to rise. And it’s this bleak reality that is fueling Occupy Wall Street anger.
Elected officials have recently directed outrage about the economic collapse and rising inequality toward unions instead of Wall Street. That was one tactic that Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker (R) used this year when he eliminated collective-bargaining rights for public-sector employees in his state.
NBA players are in a stronger position to make demands and extract victories from their employers than Wisconsin schoolteachers, because they are public figures in a highly specialized and valued industry. That’s why the owners haven’t just hired a set of replacement workers — a move that is increasingly typical of other industries in America.
No one can really call the 6’8,” 250-pound James vulnerable or a worker without a voice. But his struggle does, in a key way, mirror the power imbalance that the average American employee confronts. Both face a culture that believes workers should have no voice in the everyday life of the workplace or the broader economy. When Wade asserts that he does not want to be treated like Stern’s child, he is expressing what many Americans around the country feel — that those who work should have a greater say in working conditions, profits and economic growth.
All Americans, whether on the basketball court or the shop floor, ought to have a meaningful voice, bargaining power and some way to retain a sense of dignity in a bad economy. Hopefully, if James succeeds in his latest fight, he can bring his talents not just to South Beach, but to the 99 percent of Americans who could use his help.
Paul Frymer is an associate professor of politics at Princeton University. Dorian T. Warren is an assistant professor of political science at Columbia University and a fellow at the Roosevelt Institute.