The scene at the Chicago window factory was befitting a Hollywood movie script.

Given only three days’ notice of the plant’s shutdown, 200 workers banded together in revolt. They barricaded themselves inside Republic Windows and Doors. Media, primed to consume a David vs. Goliath battle, quickly spread word of the December drama.

The growing displays of placards and the fists-to-the-air shouts of “Yes We Can” by workers proved contagious. Bank of America, targeted because it had shut off a line of credit to the plant, forcing the owners to shut down sooner than originally planned, was besieged by letters and protests.

Politicians weighed in as well, perhaps recognizing an opportunity to appear to be on the side of the common worker. Even President-elect Barack Obama voiced his support for the protesters.

After six days, the workers declared victory, signing a deal worth $1.75 million to end the siege.

In a press release, the United Electrical Workers, which represented the workers, boasted of the settlement: “We fought to make them pay what they owe us, and we won.” The statement vowed to continue such “People’s Bailout” actions. Sure enough, the union Web site had links to these planned events: Picketing at banks throughout California to halt foreclosures. A town hall gathering in Denver. A press conference in Miami linking justice, jobs and human rights. Leafleting for higher wages for hotel workers in Indianapolis. A vigil for autoworkers in Ohio.

“I’d be the first to say to companies that what you saw with workers at Republic will be repeated over and over across the country,” Jerry Roper, president of the Chicagoland Chamber of Commerce, predicted to the Associated Press. “We haven’t seen this since the ’30s.”

The jubilation that followed this Norma Rae moment is understandable, but a reality check is in order. The truth is the Chicago protest succeeded in large part because the planets happened to be aligned just right. Public sentiment was lying in wait to pounce on a company like Republic Windows and Doors. Americans have looked on with suspicion as Congress pledged hundreds of billions to bail out Wall Street while house values plummeted and 401(k) reserves disappeared like water down the drain.

But this type of swirling backlash isn’t going to happen every time a bunch of workers get laid off summarily. Nor is CNN going to be on the scene. A showdown on labor rights was long overdue. The very laws that Republic Windows and Doors are accused of breaking, ones that require 60-day notice for such layoffs and guarantees on severance – are routinely overlooked. Federal audits and recent news accounts have shown hundreds of companies virtually ignore these laws. Enough loopholes exist in the 20-year-old Worker Adjustment and Retraining Notification Act that companies can be within their legal rights and still cause havoc to employees. And many of the firms now laying off workers are not covered.

The danger is that the Republic settlement gained concessions for a few – to silence a protest that had gained too much embarrassing attention – while keeping in place the labor practices, business incentives and myriad of loopholes that allow companies to operate at the expense of their own employees.

Shouldn’t the U.S. be a nation where workers don’t have to protest for fair pay and adequate benefits? One would hope the current economic mess could help us break from the unfair and outmoded business practices of the past and usher in new standards geared toward the future economic growth of the nation. Much like a divorce or other life-changing crisis can become a new start, a renewal – not a time to simply pick up the pieces and trudge onward.

Perhaps the bleakest coda to the Chicago plant’s storyline is this one: Republic Windows and Doors has filed for bankruptcy. Most of those who protested are still out of work. And the concessions they won – severance pay and temporary extension of their health benefits – will run out soon enough. What then? That’s the question all of America faces.

Mary Sanchez is an opinion page columnist for The Kansas City Star. E-mail [email protected]

Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or to participate in the conversation. Here’s why.

Use the form below to reset your password. When you've submitted your account email, we will send an email with a reset code.