The workers, largely black and Hispanic, were very clear on what they wanted. Their employer, a large Chicago watch manufacturer, was moving the company headquarters to Miami in June in search of cheaper labor. Many of its employees would be left behind.
What troubled workers was whether theywould be able to find, or be quickly trained for, jobs that would pay the $5 to $7 an hour to which they and their families had become accustomed.
When Mayor Jane Byrne's representative tried to explain the retraining help available to them under the Comprehensive Employment and Training Act (CETA), she was almost booed down before she began.
"We all know that CETA is second-rate employment, shouted one angry young man. "We need training, not at the minimum wage, but at $6 an hour and a guaranteed job at the end of it. . . . Don't feed us CETA. Give us something concrete."
These Elgin & Waltham Watch Company employees first read of the company's planned move in newspapers last January. They join the ranks of hundreds of thousands of workers laid off around the country in recent months, many of whom have not been told until a week or two ahead of time that they would soon be on the street.
Nationally, the growing number of layoffs in every field, from cars and rubber to steel and lumber, is fueling a new push for stronger protection for the worker left behind. The focus is on earlier warning by a company planning a shutdown or move, a more generous cash letdown for workers and the community, and well-funded retraining opportunities.
So far, much of the success has been confined to advanced warning of impending layoffs. Increasingly, early notice is a subject for collective bargaining. Rubber workers last year won a six-month prior-notice agreement. Steelworkers recently won a three-month guaranteed notice in their contract. But, as one labor leader says. "Bread on the table is still more important" as an issue.
Many labor leaders and politicians think that legislation, particularly at the national level, is the way to force the issue and cover nonunionized workers in the process. Companies tend to resist advanced notice on grounds that speaking too soon sends workers scurrying to find new jobs, lowers morale, and trims productivity.
Wisconsin enacted a law in 1975 requiring 60 days' notice before a layoff order. But few, if any, of the handful of other states considering similar bills are likely to follow suit. Most states do not want to clamp too many penalties on business exits, lest they discourage some firms from coming in the first place.
The so-called Ford-Riegle bill on Capitol Hill easily could bridge this gap. In addition to advance warning, the measure would provide for compensation and retraining. But it has languished since 1974, and its prospects for passage are viewed as slim at a time of strong pressure to balance the budget.
Although many laid-off workers have been eligible for what some critics regard as unnecessarily generous cash benefits, the opportunity to retrain in an new skill has been strictly limited. Part of the reason is that many workers, particularly in the auto industry, think they will return to their old jobs. Others have opted for early retirement.
But many workers have had difficulty finding training progrms with money behind them. The US Labor Department's Trade Adjustment Assistance Program, which supplements unemployment benefits for workers in industries hurt by import competition, has been out of training funds for the last month or two -- and no more are in sight.
So far, it appears that the steelworkers have been coming out ahead in existing retraining programs. One year-old program in western Connecticut, funded by the state and federal governments, involves steelworker employees of the International Silver Company. The company, which had been producing silverware, has recently branched out into the machine-repair field.
The 40 steelworkers enrolled in a special four-year training program with the company are learning a new field at a starting wage $6.10 an hour.
In Waukegan, Ill., laid-off steelworkers are picking up new skills in such fields as accounting and environmental control at a community college and vocational center. a local spokesman for CETA, which has been supervising the project, says CETA probably will underwrite the tuition costs rather than pay the minimum wage for classroom training because laid-off workers already are getting cash benefits.
But many consider retraining a crucial issue that deserves a far higher priority. Most concerned onlookers view the responsibility for cushioning the impact of layoffs as both the government's and -- particularly where company relocation is involved -- the company's.