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Updated Thursday, November 22, 2012 at 10:16 PM

Unions, buoyed by election results, are taking a stand

By Alana Semuels
Los Angeles Times

They're fed up, and they're not going to take it anymore.

That's the case for thousands of employees across the country who are striking and walking out of jobs rather than accept changes to their pay and benefits. It might be a shot in the arm for a labor movement that had been left for dead but saw big gains in the November election as voters elected pro-labor candidates.

The number of union-related work stoppages involving more than 1,000 workers, which reached a record low of five in 2009, rose to 13 this year as of October. And unions aren't done.

Nurses were striking this week at hospitals operated by Sutter Health in California; workers voted against concessions at Hostess Brands, forcing the company's hand; pilots at American Airlines are wreaking havoc on the airline's schedule as it tries to cut pension and other benefits.

"There's a lot of agitating going on," said Julius Getman, a labor expert at the University of Texas. "People are unhappy. They feel that they're not being well-treated."

Pivotal test

This week, labor faces a pivotal test of just how strong this movement is, with a group called Our Walmart asking associates to strike at stores across the country during the retailer's busiest days of the year, the day after Thanksgiving.

The group says it is protesting Wal-Mart Stores' retaliation against workers who seek to unionize. It wants to get the corporation to sit down with the group and listen to workers' complaints.

"There comes a time when you have to stand up and you have to fix what is broke, and Wal-Mart is broken," said Evelyn Cruz, 41, who works at a Wal-Mart in Pico Rivera, Calif., and walked off the job there Tuesday.

Cruz says the company has cut staff so that her department has half the number of people it once did, and that Wal-Mart gives poor shifts or fewer hours to the people who complain. She was one of a handful of workers who participated in the first strike in the company's history in October.

Wal-Mart says it does not expect the protests to disrupt business, and most of its employees are happy with their jobs. "The fact is, our pay and benefits plans are as good or better than our retail competitors, including those that are unionized," Wal-Mart spokeswoman Kory Lundberg said in an email.

The Bentonville, Ark., retail titan last week filed an unfair-labor-practice complaint with the National Labor Relations Board, seeking an injunction to stop the protests.

That's unlikely to make a difference with the protests. Our Walmart filed a complaint in response Tuesday, accusing Wal-Mart of trying to deter workers from participating in the strikes.

Labor actions usually occur in clusters, and big turnouts Friday could prompt others to take action, Getman said.

"If there really is turmoil at Wal-Mart on Friday, it will set in motion a lot of other protests," Getman said. "There will be a sense of, 'Well, they did it; why shouldn't we?' "

But even if the Wal-Mart protests fizzle, many workers elsewhere are frustrated about the benefits they've been asked to give up during the recession.

Nurses at Sutter hospitals, for instance, are being asked to give up paid sick days and health insurance for part-time workers, said Charles Idelson, a spokesman for the California Nurses Association.

"There are employers who are seeking to exploit the current economic situation to try and push through deep cuts in workers' living standards," Idelson said.

Feeling revived

As the economy improves and workers feel more secure in their jobs, they're often more willing to take action, said Nelson Lichtenstein, director of the Center for the Study of Work, Labor and Democracy at the University of California, Santa Barbara.

"Insofar as there's an uptick in employment, workers can think, 'If I get fired, I can maybe find another job,' " he said.

Even if few of the strikes achieve their desired results, victories at the polls in November all but guaranteed labor will have some influence at the White House. Unions helped re-elect President Obama and were influential in the elections of Sens. Tammy Baldwin, D-Wis., and Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass.

AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka said this month that he expected card-check legislation, which makes it easier for companies' workforces to unionize, to be introduced in Congress in the next four years.

Although labor experts consider that unlikely, they say Obama could take up the issue of raising the minimum wage, or could issue an order requiring companies to rely less heavily on part-time workers.

The fact that they have the influence to do so, even in an era of declining union membership, indicates that things may finally be turning around for the labor movement, said Gary Chaison, an industrial-relations professor at Clark University.

"The unions are taking a higher profile. They've become energized after the elections," he said. "The labor movement is starting to feel revived, but it knows it's not quite there yet."


MARK BOSTER / MCCLATCHY NEWSPAPERS
Wal-Mart workers in Pico Rivera, Calif., stage a recent walkout in front of the store. "Wal-Mart is broken," says employee Evelyn Cruz, 41, who works there.




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