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Published: Sunday, 7/22/2007

WARN reform called human-rights issue

Support could come from wide range of working groups, observer says

BY JAMES DREW AND STEVE EDER
BLADE STAFF WRITERS
Brown Brown
ASSOCIATED PRESS Enlarge

WASHINGTON -- Supporters of a plan to overhaul the federal WARN Act should frame the issue as a human-rights campaign that resonates as people's bread and butter, veteran activists say.

Two decades ago, Democratic senators worked with organized labor to stitch together a coalition that led to approval of the WARN Act -- the Worker Adjustment and Retraining Notification Act -- which requires 60 days' notice of plant closings and major layoffs. An investigation by The Blade -- chronicled in a four-part series last week -- found that the law is so full of loopholes and flaws that employers repeatedly skirt it with little or no penalty.

Sen. Sherrod Brown (D., Ohio) is attempting to reform the law with the support from his party's three leading presidential candidates.

"We are going to make a strong, strong run, and we are going to keep doing it until we get it done," Mr. Brown said. "There's such a need now because of what has happened in the last five years in our state and across the country."

READ MORE: Effects and reform of the WARN Act

As Mr. Brown builds support for his proposals, James Brudney, a law professor at Ohio State University, believes an opportunity has emerged to attract support beyond the "industrial heartland" -- the factory workers and laborers who have long supported such efforts.

"This was a powerful issue in the 1980s and it remains powerful today, notwithstanding an economy in which a certain number of people are very well off. There are a lot of people in the middle and working classes who are at risk of sudden, unexpected loss of jobs on a large scale," said Mr. Brudney, who was chief counsel for the Senate subcommittee on labor from 1987 to 1992.

The bill introduced by Mr. Brown, a first-term Democrat, would increase the notice period required under the law from 60 days to 90 days, increase the penalties for businesses that break the law, require smaller companies to comply with the law, and empower the Depart-ment of Labor and state attorneys general to enforce the law on behalf of workers.

Discussions begin

Rick McHugh, a staff attorney with the National Employment Law Project, said Mr. Brown's bill and The Blade's series have started a discussion across the country about how notice of business closings and major layoffs gives employees and communities a better chance of rebounding.

The fate of Mr. Brown's bill could be determined by the battle for the Democratic nomination for president, some observers say.

The similarities between the race nearly 20 years ago and now are striking. In 1988, Democratic presidential candidates Michael Dukakis, Jesse Jackson, and Al Gore endorsed the WARN Act.

A perfect opportunity

Last week, minutes after Mr. Brown introduced his reform bill -- dubbed the FOREWARN Act -- aides to Sens. Hillary Clinton of New York and Barack Obama of Illinois raced to become the first co-sponsors. A day later, former Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina discussed the need to strengthen the law during a campaign stop in Youngstown, as part of his eight-state tour to dramatize the plight of the poor.

"They have all, it seems at least at this point in their posturing, agreed that this would be an important step to take," said Julie Hurwitz, the former executive director of the Sugar Law Center, a Detroit nonprofit organization that has assisted workers in WARN Act lawsuits for 16 years. "I think it's a perfect opportunity to push this issue and run with it."

The immediate fate of Mr. Brown's bill -- which has been shipped to the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee -- rests with the panel's chairman, Sen. Edward M. Kennedy of Massachusetts, who worked closely in the 1980s with former Sen. Howard Metzenbaum of Ohio, the author of the original WARN Act.

In a statement to The Blade last week, Mr. Kennedy said the WARN Act needs to be strengthened and that he looks forward to taking up Mr. Brown's proposals in his committee.

Expanding support

Hearings on the bill would highlight problems with the WARN Act and provide activists with a forum on how a notice requirement helps workers adjust to job loss -- by tapping unemployment assistance, job training dollars, and federal money to help those who lose their jobs because of international trade deals, said Mr. Brudney, the OSU law professor.

The nation's shift from an "industrial to a service-based economy" since the 1980s is expected to expand support for strengthening the WARN Act, he said.

"This affects middle-class sales representatives and middle-class managers. 'Plant closings' does not fully capture what is going on now. It goes well beyond the industrial heartland," Mr. Brudney said.

A major question is whether the Democratic-controlled Congress can approve a bill without making the compromises that could gut the legislation's intent to close loopholes and remove or alter other provisions, he said.

Mr. Brown, who is awaiting reaction from Senate leadership and Republican legislators, said: "I want the strongest bill we can get. I'm not going to compromise to the point where it is just a piece of paper."

Some who are hopeful about the bill's prospects also question whether President Bush would veto it.

A White House spokesman declined to comment on the FOREWARN Act, referring questions to the Department of Labor, which did not return messages.

Business interests

Ms. Hurwitz said she anticipates "tremendous pressure exerted by the corporate lobby to resist any changes that would strengthen the workers' rights on the same grounds that they resisted the first time around -- which is why it took 15 years to get the original law passed.

"It's not going to be a cakewalk," she added.

The U.S. Chamber of Commerce has concerns about Mr. Brown's bill to amend the WARN Act, which the trade groups views as a "product of careful compromise," said Michael Eastman, the chamber's executive director for labor policy.

"Employers need to make rapid decisions to meet expectations of their customers in today's market," Mr. Eastman said. "We would be concerned that new legislation might unrealistically interfere with that, such as increasing the [notice period from 60 to 90 days]."

Wanted: A 'bulldog'

Harry Saxion, who lost his job abruptly when the National Machinery Co. in Tiffin closed in late 2001, said many workers have suffered because they haven't received notice. Because of anticipated opposition from well-funded business groups, it will require a "bulldog" in Congress to reform the WARN Act, he said.

Mr. Saxion, who had worked for 15 years in the accounting department of National Machinery Co., read in his local newspaper on Dec. 29, 2001, that his company was closing. Several employees, including Mr. Saxion, were never called back when the company reopened a few months later under a different name.

National Machinery Co.'s employees filed a WARN Act lawsuit against the company's former owners, which resulted in a settlement of $375 per worker. The settlement was a fraction of what workers like Mr. Saxion felt they were owed.

Even if a new WARN Act is passed, reform advocates say, it'll be irrelevant if it isn't properly enforced. "Unless it is enforced it's not going to do any good. Somebody has to back it up," Mr. Saxion said.

Contact James Drew at: jdrew@theblade.com or 419-351-2004.



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