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7 Amazing Fights for the Rights of Workers

From Houston janitors to Chicago teachers, 2012 will be remembered as the year workers played their most powerful card: the strike.

From the ports of Los Angeles to the drive-through windows of New York City, hundreds of thousands of workers engaged in direct actions throughout 2012.

While much of the news cycle this year was dominated by the presidential election, a quick look back at worker protests in 2012 reveals a historically significant series of labor struggles. Building off the momentum established by t he 2011 Wisconsin teachers’ union occupation of the state capitol, 2012 saw a building number of direct actions by workers—particularly in non-unionized, low-wage professions.

As Jane McAlevey, author of the recent book on labor organizing Raising Expectations (And Raising Hell) explains, this year workers “return[ed] to the idea of strikes and militant direct action that actually has the power of disruption." Workers, she explained, have been ready for this militancy for years, and now the leaders of the labor movement are finally catching up.

"Nothing is going to replace boots on the ground. And the boots are ready," she said.

Of course, 2012 also saw some blows to the labor movement, perhaps the worst being the passage of the union-busting bill in Michigan , deceptively called the “right-to-work” law. Still, from janitors in Houston to teachers in Chicago, 2012 will be remembered as the year that both unionized and not-(yet)-unionized workers played their most powerful card: the strike.

1. Walmart Workers

The top award for labor uprising in 2012 has to go to Walmart workers, whose wave of national and international strikes against the company’s supply chain facilities and retail outlets heralded a new era of resistance against multinational corporations. 

The unrest began in the remote Walmart warehouses of Elwood, Ill. and Mira Loma, Calif., where workers had been enduring dangerous working conditions for years, despite filing multiple labor complaints and lawsuits. Dozens of workers at both warehouses—which are run by subcontractors rather than the retail giant itself, part of the overall “domestic outsourcing” of U.S. jobs—went on strike in September. By October, the strikes had spread to Walmart retail stores in a dozen states ; by November, retail workers walked out of stores in more than 100 cities during a national day of action on Black Friday, the notoriously busy shopping day following Thanksgiving. 

In December, international solidarity actions, including strikes, occurred at Walmarts in Argentina, Brazil, Chile, South Africa, India and Nicaragua. And while the Walmart strikes didn’t cripple the U.S. holiday shopping season, they did shine a light on the plight of workers at the world’s largest employer--and, consequently, the entire low-wage hyper globalized economy. 

As Josh Eidelson wrote in a feature for the Nation : “ Even though Walmart employs just under 1 percent of the American workforce, most of us live in the Walmart economy. Its model has been forced on contractors and suppliers, adopted by competitors and mimicked across industries. That model includes a relentless squeeze on labor costs. In the United States, workers say they often skip lunch to get by on paltry wages. In Bangladesh, where in late November 112 workers died in a factory without outdoor fire escapes, NGOs blame Walmart for pushing deadly shortcuts.”

In the 50-year history of Walmart, no organizing campaign has ever struck a serious blow at this multinational giant—until 2012. And this campaign’s success, as Eidelson writes, isn’t just about the future of Walmart workers. It’s “a necessary task if there’s ever to be a robust future for the US labor movement.”

2. Chicago Education Workers 

On September 10—just two days before the California warehouse workers kicked off the international strike against Walmart—nearly 30,000 teachers and educational workers, clad in red T-shirts and waving handwritten signs, flooded the streets of Chicago in the school district’s first strike in a quarter century. At the heart of the strike was the direction and future of the U.S. public school system, which has been hotly contested since former President George W. Bush’s 2002 No Child Left Behind legislation put standardized tests at the top of school districts’ educational priorities and gave privatized charter schools prominence amidst the recent gutting of the public sector. Since 2009 alone, school districts, struggling under austerity measures, have cut more than 300,000 teachers , a decline in public education that one White House report called " historically unprecedented."