On a San Francisco afternoon in November 2005, 41 nonmanagement employees – mostly cutters, sewers, and distribution workers making about $11 an hour – learned that they would share $1.2 million.

Had they won the lottery? No. These workers were about to hit it big because the company they worked for – Timbuk2, a San Francisco-based manufacturer of bicycle messenger bags – was being sold to VMG Equity Partners, and the workers had rights to a piece of the company.

Silicon Valley employees...

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