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Port strike averted in eastern US, for now. Is labor starting to claw back?

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The situation had become serious enough for state leaders, including Florida Gov. Rick Scott, to call on President Obama to invoke the Taft-Hartley Act, a federal labor law used by President George W. Bush to end a 10-day, 29-port lockout on the West Coast in 2002.

The gritty longshoremen, meanwhile, are uniquely situated to push their agenda, even at the risk of losing public and political support, labor experts say. While relatively small, the longshoremen’s union historically has been aggressive in protecting its workers’ benefits, and its members’ central role to the US economy makes the union a particularly tough negotiator.

The strike reprieve was in part achieved with the help of federal negotiators dispatched by Mr. Obama, who owes much of his political success to unions but who has been wary of pursuing pro-union legislation that could negatively impact the soft economy.

Citing traffic-clogging Thanksgiving protests by the Service Employees International Union at Los Angeles International Airport, bakers going to battle with Hostess, and a recent eight-day clerical workers strike at West Coast ports (where most longshoremen refused to cross picket lines), labor expert Philip Dine says the movement “is clearly in a more aggressive mode right now.”

“I think what we’re seeing is … labor realizing that it needs to think about and pursue its own goals,” says Mr. Dine, author of the newly revised book “State of the Unions.” “And when you’re willing to [cripple port traffic and] stall traffic at major airports on the busiest travel day of the year, it shows labor is willing to antagonize shoppers and travelers, and it means labor means business.”

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