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When Liz Shuler rides on an airplane, she often has an experience that will be familiar to most travelers: Her seat mate asks, "What do you do?"

Five years ago, after saying she worked for a labor union, Shuler said, most people would put their noses back in their books. Today, she's met with reactions like "awesome" and "amazing." 

NYT: How did you get your start in the labor movement?

Liz Shuler: I came up through the IBEW [International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers]. My father was a union member and worked for PGE [an Oregon utility]. Clerical workers were not in a union, and my mother and I were organizing them. PGE was a study in the difference a union can make: Power linemen were respected and made good wages, and nonunion clerical workers were not listened to and didn’t have a voice.

Amalgamated Transit Union (ATU)*

American Federation of Government Employees (AFGE)*

American Federation of Musicians of the United States and Canada (AFM)*

American Federation of School Administrators (AFSA)*

American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME)*

American Federation of Teachers (AFT)*

American Postal Workers Union (APWU)*

American Radio Association (ARA)*

Bakery, Confectionery, Tobacco Workers and Grain Millers International Union (BCTGM)*

The picket line has been crowded lately. Tens of thousands of workers are on strike, including nurses in Massachusetts, United Auto Workers at John Deere, coal miners in Alabama, metal workers in West Virginia, hospital workers in New York, ironworkers in Pennsylvania and Kellogg’s workers in four states.

Workers at companies like Kellogg’s, Nabisco and John Deere have hit the picket lines in recent weeks hoping to get a better deal from their employers. A new survey suggests the public by and large supports them.

The AFL-CIO labor federation commissioned the progressive pollster Data for Progress to take the public’s temperature on the strikes that have made headlines this summer and fall. The online survey of nearly 1,300 likely voters asked if they “approve or disapprove of employees going on strike in support of better wages, benefits, and working conditions.”

Marcial Reyes could have just quit his job. Frustrated with chronic understaffing at the Kaiser Permanente hospital where he works in Southern California, he knows he has options in a region desperate for nurses.

Instead, he voted to go on strike.

And many of them are either hitting the picket lines or quitting their jobs as a result.

The changing dynamics of the US labor market, which has put employees rather than employers in the driver's seat in a way not seen for decades, is allowing unions to flex their muscle.

Twenty years ago today, on a Sunday afternoon in Brookwood, Alabama, 32 coal miners descended 2,000 feet below the ground into the Jim Walter Resources Blue Creek No. 5 Mine for a routine maintenance check.