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Legacy of Chicago sit-in: empowering laid-off workers

Six-day factory occupation ends after employees gain $1.75 million severance package.

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"Of course it's going to increase pressure on companies," Dr. Safford says of the sit-in. "What I'm impressed with is this union and these workers. They were thinking way ahead of the game. This is about political pressure being put on companies."

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It's no secret why the workers' situation struck a chord with the public, says Cynthia Estlund, a professor of labor and employment law at New York University School of Law.

"Right now you're seeing workers who have been taking it on the chin. Wages have not kept pace with productivity increases, and [workers] have not been able to get their share of the goodies, nor have they been able to get the sort of protections [they would] if unionized," she says. "On the other hand, no magic bullet can protect everyone in times like these."

President-elect Obama said Sunday the glass plant workers are "absolutely right" in asking for their benefits. "What's happening to them is reflective of what's happening across this economy," he said during a press conference.

Some labor experts and policymakers argue that the WARN Act needs to be strengthened to further protect workers in a down economy.

Though considered a breakthrough job-security measure in its day, "it was criticized for not being as tough [on employers] as it should have been," says James Brudney, a professor at Ohio State University's Moritz College of Law, who was chief labor counsel for the Senate labor panel when it drafted WARN during the Reagan administration. Sen. Sherrod Brown (D) of Ohio is expected to introduce a bill next year to improve WARN enforcement and require more of companies preparing for layoffs.

But a stronger WARN Act would not necessarily help, say business advocates. Often, lost wages become the responsibility of banks, which force a company's hand when they withdraw its line of credit, causing factories to close unexpectedly.

"If the company does not have the money to pay for payroll or for salaries going forward, it doesn't have much choice other than to let everybody go," says Thomas Petrides, a Los Angeles-based partner in the labor and employment group of K&L Gates, an international law firm. This fall's credit crisis is the primary driver of current layoffs, he says.

"A lot of the [job] reductions that have taken place in the last several months are problems related to credit," says Mr. Petrides, who represents the management side of labor disputes. "Now, other companies that have been able to avoid credit problems are going to be impacted by what happens to those companies."

Material from Associated Press was used in this report.