Labor actions usually occur in clusters, and big turnouts on 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.
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 Barack Obama and were also influential in the elections of Sens. Tammy Baldwin, D-Wis., and Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass.
AFL-CIO President Rich Trumka said earlier 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.”