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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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As the new refs struggled to assume their responsibilities on live television, a series of controversial and disputed calls threw fans, players and coaches alike into a tizzy—providing one of the clearest and best publicized examples of why trained, unionized workers are, in fact, irreplaceable. Finally, after the Packers/Seahawks call, the league ceded to many of the referees union’s demands and the officials were back on the field.

There were also a series of less public but no less important lockouts throughout 2012, including 8,000 Con Edison workers in New York and 1,300 American Crystal Sugar workers in Minnesota, North Dakota and Iowa. Meanwhile, NHL players are still locked off the ice in the league’s second serious labor dispute in the last 10 years.

7. Los Angeles Port Strike

On November 27, 800 clerical workers—fearing that their union jobs would soon become automated or non-unionized—went on strike at the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach. In response, tens of thousands of port workers, members of the historically radical International Longshore and Warehouse Union, refused to cross the picket line, crippling shipping activity across Southern California. The action, which lasted eight days and cost the region an estimated $8 billion , was the strongest port strike in a decade.

Similar to other labor struggles in 2012, salary increases were not the driving issue of the strike, which was the future of the secure, middle-class professions. The 800 clerical workers were protested that the ports were replacing the retiring union members with non-unionized workers, thereby whittling down the number of well-paying clerical jobs on the West Coast.

After the eight-day strike, the clerical workers won the concession that only 14 positions would be replaced by non-unionized workers over the next three and a half years—an imperfect but hard-fought victory for the future of the middle class.

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Of course, the labor movement will need to continue expanding to make a measurable impact on the future of the U.S. economy and the conditions of its workers.

As Jane McAlevey said, “I’m hoping that in 2013 the labor movement will ratchet up—that we’ll see one hundred times what we’ve seen in 2012.”

Laura Gottesdiener is a freelance journalist and the author of "A Dream Foreclosed: Black America and the Fight for a Place to Call Home," forthcoming from Zuccotti Park Press.