LeBron James is as far as you can get from the 99 percent.
The NBA superstar is paid more than $16 million a year as a forward for the Miami Heat and has a $90 million contract with Nike. After his team lost the NBA finals to Dallas in June, he told griping fans to go back to the humdrum reality of “the real world,” while he retreated to his recently purchased $9 million home in South Beach.
So James may seem to share nothing with the 99 percent — in Occupy Wall Street’s terms, the vast majority of American workers, who suffer in a culture of unabashed greed that has created a historic gulf of inequality between the richest Americans and everyone else.
But he and the other NBA players have something important in common with the 99 percent. James is an employee of the Miami Heat. Despite his recent tweet hinting that he will try to join the National Football League if the NBA lockout continues, he finds himself, like most Americans, beholden to the owners and managers who control his workplace and industry. If the owners want to lock out the workers, or leave the country in search of greater profits, he — like American workers whose jobs have disappeared overseas — is left with few options. He is beholden to team owners who are not always upfront about their revenue and profits, and who are claiming a right to make more money without equitably sharing it with the workers who make the huge windfalls possible.
In the split between NBA players and owners, the players are voicing frustrations that may seem awfully similar to what the Occupy Wall Street protesters are saying. The players are accusing the owners — who keep recording yearly profits as a group while claiming hardship and the need for belt-tightening — of playing by different rules; avoiding public scrutiny; and benefiting from a range of insider deals, bailouts and protections without sharing the profits.
At issue in this dispute is whether the league can impose a tighter salary cap on the teams, which would effectively lower the salaries of the players. The other major conflict is over how “basketball-related income” — which includes revenue from the sale of tickets, parking, food at concession stands, player jerseys and broadcast rights — will be split between players and owners. Until now, players got a slight majority of this revenue. This made sense, since it was superstars such as Michael Jordan and Magic Johnson, and now Kobe Bryant and LeBron James, who brought the league to new heights in popularity and profits. The owners, however, say it is unsustainable to maintain high salaries and existing profit margins. They want a 50-50 split of the basketball-related income.
The players have remained united and responded angrily to NBA Commissioner David Stern’s initial threats of canceling the season. Dwyane Wade, James’ teammate and one of the league’s biggest stars, yelled at the commissioner in a heated meeting, saying: “You’re not pointing your finger at me. I’m not your child.” Steve Nash, two-time NBA most valuable player, questioned the owners’ representation of their finances, tweeting, “Why are the owners unwilling to negotiate in good faith?”
Despite some optimism last week, Stern late on Friday canceled all games through Nov. 30. Going into the weekend, talks remained stalled around the issue of sharing basketball-related income.
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 three American 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 nonunion 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’s Republican Gov. Scott Walker 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 call the 6-foot, 8-inch 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.