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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.

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4. Houston Janitors 

In the middle of July, about 250 janitors responsible for cleaning nine buildings in oil-rich Houston walked off the job, catalyzing a strike that would stretch for five years and snowball to more than 3,000 workers represented by the Service Employees International Union . Heading into the strike, the janitors—who cleaned the offices of some of the world’s largest and most profitable corporations, including ExxonMobil, Chevron, Wells Fargo, Shell Oil and JPMorgan Chase—earned an average hourly wage of $8.35, which, because of the tendency to keep workers part-time, translated to an average annual income of $8,684.

One of the leading janitors on the strike, Alice McAfee, said in a speech just before the first walkout : “We think we’ve moved past discrimination but we haven’t… Now it’s low-wage workers who are treated like second-class citizens.… This fight is about putting an end to discrimination once and for all—racism, discrimination against immigrants, and discrimination against the working poor. This is about restoring dignity to all work.”

The strike soon swept across the city with the demand that janitors’ wages increase to $10 an hour over the next three years. Organizers flew in from around the country to lead the hundreds of janitors and their families in direct actions, which including blocking downtown intersections, slowing traffic on the highways, multiple protests at the buildings and more than 70 civil disobedience arrests. 

For many union opponents , the battle of the Houston janitors was considered labor’s last stand in the South. The anti-labor sentiment in the state is fierce: Texas is among the 27 states with laws that make it difficult for unions to organize, and it leads the nation—along with Mississippi—in having the highest percentage of minimum-wage jobs. Yet, by the first week of August, the janitors had a new contract that would increase their wages to $9.35 an hour over four years. It's still a paltry sum compared to the billions in profits that these corporations net annually, but it's far more than they would have earned without the strike.

5. LAX Airport Employees

On the afternoon before Thanksgiving, the busiest travel day of the year, hundreds of workers picketed and protested outside of the iconic gray LAX letters of the Los Angeles International A irport. The workers, represented by SEIU, walked off the job after their employer, Aviation Safeguard -- which holds a city license to operate inside the Los Angeles airport  -- walked away from the contract negotiations earlier in the year , leaving hundreds of workers without health care or living wages.

Although the outdoor protest was not an official strike, hundreds of workers flooded into the street during various times throughout the day, and more than a dozen blocked a major intersection a little after 1pm, forcing a handful of arrests.

The action was only one of a series of walkouts and protests by LAX union workers throughout 2012, including rallies over the summer and around May 1. 

6. NFL Lockout

Monday night football is usually a bastion of apolitical Americana. But when a replacement referee’s controversial call in the Green Bay Packers vs. Seattle Seahawks showdown resulted in what many claimed was one of the worst decisions in NFL history -- effectively handing a victory to the Seahawks -- the league’s ongoing labor dispute with its referees became perhaps the most widely recognized workers struggle of the year. 

The National Football League locked out its officials in June, after contract negotiations with the referees’ union broke down over issues of retirement benefits for current and future workers. (A lockout is the flip side of a strike, but instead of the workers walking off the job to nudge contract negotiations to go their way, management forbids employees to work, in the hopes of yielding concessions.) By the time the season began, the referees were still locked out, forcing the league to hire replacement refs from college-level and non-professional football teams across the country.