Everytime a story about labor unions is written, very old black and white photographs are invoked. Likely dating from before the first world war, any of these photos might have featured some, by now, stereotypical images: hardscrabble workers in scally caps; raised fists; marching out their anger; standing being yelled at by a furious Eugene Debs; holding signs asking for a workday limited to twelve hours; arrayed against a phalanx of police.
Everybody seems to think that unions are of an old, perhaps even extinct, age. Union organizing was something that your great grandparents might have done. Surely unions cannot be relevant to this technological marvel of an age in which we live, or so the thinking goes.
This vision of unions-as-dinosaurs mistakes the union presence in our here and now.
I have a story for you. It starts in black and white but has not yet ended, though the world has since gone full color. Many of the participants are still alive. Those who followed them have had their lives enriched, immeasurably.
It was January 14, 1964. It was a Tuesday night in Boston Massachusetts. It was the fourteenth National Basketball Association All-Star game.
The Celtics’ legendary Head Coach Arnold ‘Red’ Auerbach was scheduled to coach the East team, which included three of his own Celtics, Sam Jones, Bill Russell, and Tom Heinsohn.
Fred Schaus, Head Coach of the Los Angeles Lakers, was scheduled to lead hall of famers like Jerry West, Elgin Baylor, and Wilt Chamberlain on the West team.
Though it was the fourteenth All-Star game, ABC had signed on to televise it for the very first time. Excitement was high and the crowd at the old — the original — Boston Garden were charged and ready. The cameras were poised. All the team owners for all the teams were in attendance.
Game time came. Game time went… without a start. Most of the players stayed in the locker room. Ten years of frustration and foot dragging by the league and by the owners were coming to a head.
The story really starts in 1954. Boston Celtic point guard Bob Cousy had taken the initiative to form the National Basketball Players Association, a union of players. He started the NBPA, with support from a majority of players, in an effort to get the team owners to implement impartial dispute resolution and pay the moving expenses for traded players. Cousy became the first president of the NBPA and also worked to get players paid for doing promotional events and sought to limit the number of exhibition games.
Can you imagine NOT getting paid to do promotional events for the team? Can you imagine a job that doesn’t have a formal, and impartial, method of dispute resolution?
However, in 1954 the league and the owners ignored Cousy and refused to even recognize the union. In a canny move, in 1957 Cousy met publicly with the AFL-CIO and, backed by the players, threatened a strike. The owners and the league backed down and formally recognized the union but granted few other concessions. Cousy stepped down after that and later in 1957 his Boston Celtic teammate, Tom Heinsohn, who was the son of a New Jersey union official, became the second president of the NBPA. Though the NBPA was formally recognized and had succeeded in drafting the first collective bargaining agreement, the league still refused to negotiate with the NBPA as the exclusive bargaining agent of the players. By 1961, Heinsohn was trying to get veteran players a pension but the league stalled and defied the union. They tried to enter into agreements with individual players and used other tactics of delay and stall.
By January of 1964 the players were fed up.
So there they were: The All-Star game was about to start; Heinsohn was supposed to play in it; The TV cameras were all warmed up and ready to go; The crowd was on fire.
Instead, Heinsohn and NBPA lawyers were locked in last minute negotiations with J. Walter Kennedy, then president of the NBA. The All-Star players, east and west — the best of the 1964 best — waited patiently in one locker room, guarded by the Boston Police — who were also unionized. The players had been without a contract since June of the year prior and had no pension plan. Some of the players had been warned that if they struck on the All-Star game, they’d never play again. The league and the owners were trying to either break the union or stall until players gave up.
As the fans — those in attendance and those at home — waited to see what they hoped would be another epic Russell v Chamberlain matchup the negotiations continued. Kennedy, the NBA president had signed a deal with ABC that was looking like it might evaporate in so much smoke. Having envisioned more lucrative deals in the future he was now looking instead at having to explain why the game wasn’t going to be played at all and the deal not honored.
Heinsohn had a side business selling insurance and was prepared to make it his full time job. Most of the players at that time were college educated and had side jobs because, at that time, the NBA didn’t pay all that well. Meanwhile, ABC was waffling. They had only so much time before they had to switch over to alternate programming. The All-Stars took two separate votes on two different offers from the league, and stood firm in their demands.
Some say it happened just before game time. Others say it was ten minutes into when the game was supposed to start. Others say it took twenty minutes. Whatever the true number, in the end J. Walter Kennedy ultimately gave in.
The game would go on and ABC broadcast it. It was only later that the public found out that the game almost didn’t happen.
Police, fire, teachers, and all major sports leagues are unionized. The machinists who work for NASA making one-of-a-kind parts for one-of-a-kind rockets and one-of-a-kind satellites are unionized. Screen actors have a union. Musicians have a union. Nurses have a union.
This is what unions do in the here and the now. It is not an aged relic of a bygone era. It is at the heart of our capitalist system. What the owners and the league tried to do back then is no different than what Jeff Bezos is trying to do now. What Amazon workers want is the same thing Bob Cousy and Tom Heinsohn and the rest of the players wanted and which present players greatly enjoy: freedom from exploitation.
Progressives, these days, want to invent something new. They want to be the ones to solve the problems with a clean, inventive, solution. They don’t realize the power of the solutions they already have: The ideas that, yes, worked in 1920 and would work in 2020 if anybody bothered to pick them up. Unions are only as powerful as the people who stand behind them.
Oh yeah, the game. It went on. The East won it 111 to 107. Oscar Robertson, then of the Cincinnati Royals, (which ultimately became the Sacramento Kings) was the game MVP. Robertson would go on to replace Tom Heinsohn as NBPA President in 1967 and start working against the perpetuity clauses in the contracts… or, put another way, it was the way to free agency.
It was quite a game.
The NBPA players association emerged from the 1964 All-Star game with a pension plan and as the exclusive bargaining agent for the players. The NBPA was the first successful major league union¹. It would not be the last. By 1970, the MLB, NHL and the NFL, had players unions.
If a union is good enough for pro athletes why isn’t it good enough for everyone else?
Irony and hypocrisy had a baby, and called it ‘Barstoolsports.com’
 Major League Baseball had been attempting to form some manner of players association since 1885. What became the MLBPA was started in 1953, but was not recognized by the league until 1966.