Will Kohler Strike Ignite 3rd Major Labor War?


The strike of 2,100 United Auto Workers Local 833 members at the Kohler Corp. in the lakeshore city of Sheboygan, Wis. (pop. 50,000) could hardly offer a more appropriate setting for a momentous battle over inequality and unrestrained corporate greed.

The area has already been the site of two major labor wars between workers and Kohler, a manufacturer of kitchen and bathroom fixtures.

In 1934, heavily-armed “special deputies” hired by Kohler fired on a crowd of strikers, killing two and wounding 47, almost all shot in the back.

From 1954 to 1961, UAW Local 833 staged the longest strike in the nation’s history, and came out the victor in a conflict that dragged on four more years in the courts until Kohler had exhausted every possible legal option. The UAW, under the leadership of Secretary-Treasurer Emil Mazey, maintained a militant presence on the picket lines and in the streets of Sheboygan throughout the strike.

Even more importantly, Local 833 inspired the solidarity of workers across the nation at a time when union membership was around its all-time peak of 35%, but coming under fire during the McCarthy era. Particularly important was the support of the Plumbers union, which quietly but effectively discouraged developers of major building projects to avoid Kohler products.

The latest conflict, a strike that began Nov. 15 after an overwhelming vote by UAW Local 833 members to take to the picket lines, pits the same players against each other once again.

Standing on one side is the privately-held Kohler Corp., whose patriarch Herbert V. Kohler and family members are sitting upon a $7.8 billion fortune which has nearly quadrupled in value since 2009. The earnings from making bathroom and kitchen fixtures have made the Kohlers a Wisconsin dynasty for generations, producing two governors and a third unsuccessful gubernatorial candidate.

The corporation has already begun to threaten workers and the community with relocating all production out of Sheboygan. David Kohler, the son of Herbert and the new CEO, has publicly threatened to shift the all production out of Sheboygan if the UAW presses too hard on its demands including the elimination of a two-tier wage structure and for substantial pay increases after a five-year wage freeze.

He pronounced in a widely-published letter that Kohler has been magnanimous to its local workforce by maintaining production here rather than at one of its 48 other facilities in 13 nations including low-wage sites in Mexico and India.

“If profit was Kohler Co.’s sole motivation, there would be no strike,” the CEO declared, professing the corporation’s lack of interest in maximizing profit. “In fact, there would be no manufacturing here at all. The savings of moving production out of Sheboygan County would be that significant.” 

Arrayed on the picket lines since Nov. 15 are the members of Local 833 for whom recent years have not been quite as kind as they have for the Kohlers. The workers have endured the five-year wage freeze and experienced five years of a two-tier wage system that permanently holds “Tier B” workers at about 35% to 50% less pay than Tier A workers.

Despite the corporation’s history of brass-knuckled intransigence, the vote to strike was overwhelming, said Dave Boucher, financial secretary of Local 833. Local 833 members are keenly aware of the corporation’s current threats of relocation and it long history of literally waging war against labor. But the two-tier system in place since 2010 and the lengthy wage freeze by a corporation with seemingly limitless wealth inspired Local 833 members to pick up picket signs. “We are committed to addressing the disparity in wages and standing up for the lower-tier workers,” he said firmly.

Local 833’s decision to undertake the strike was a bold one in the present era where the widespread use of “scab” replacement workers has destroyed strikes at numerous militant strikes, as at Phelps-Dodge, Greyhound, International Paper, Eastern Airlines, and many others. While strikes involving 1,000 or more workers in the post-WWII period peaked at 470 in 1952, only 14 strikes took place last year.

But Kohler’s combination of massive earnings and intransigence ignited a spark of resistance among Local 833 members.

Up until negotiations were set to resume Dec. 8, the corporation had been insisting upon a package that included retention of the two-tier system and imposition of higher health costs that would more than eat up the proposed wage increases.

Despite the huge fortune held by the Kohler, the corporate negotiators have refused to specify the amount of profits made from their Sheboygan operations. “Since they’re a privately-held corporation run by the family, they tell us they don’t have to disclose this information,” said the UAW’s Boucher. “They’ve just pooh-poohed the issue, saying their profits don’t matter.”

Clearly, UAW Local 833 members view the issue quite differently, and the potential for yet another bitter, high-profile conflict has emerged.

While the 1954 strike centered on the legal right of workers to form and maintain unions, the current conflict pits the UAW against Kohler over fundamental moral question of inequality which looms over the entire society. The issues of inequality and economic insecurity are particularly painful and widely-felt in Wisconsin, as two-thirds of state counties have witnessed a drop in household income 2009-2014.

In Sheboygan County where Kohler is located, median household income has fallen 9.1%. Further, Wisconsin has suffered the nation’s largest proportionate loss of middle-income jobs since 2000. While the nation as a whole has lost 7.2%, Wisconsin has suffered a stunning 14.7% of middle-income jobs since 2000, as shown by a Pew Charitable Fund report released last March.

Meanwhile, the state has been hammered recently by a recent spate of announced plant closings that will claim some 10,000 jobs. Thanks to the merger of Heinz and Kraft, the Kraft-owned Oscar Mayer plant in Madison, with 1,100 workers is due to close with work shifted to a new plant in Iowa subsidized by state taxpayers. Other major job losses include the relocation of 350 machinists’ jobs from its medical equipment facility in Waukesha to Canada, Tyson Foods shutting down its plant in Jefferson, resulting in the loss of 400 jobs, the elimination of 250 salaried positions at Harley-Davidson, and Ashley Furniture bypassing Wisconsin and adding 454 jobs to North Carolina.

Unable to stem the loss of jobs has been Gov. Scott Walker’s privatized Wisconsin Economic Development Corp., which has been the target of withering criticism for bestowing subsidies on corporations leaving the state or the US entirely, and trying to conceal its methods from taxpayers, among other problems. An estimated 60% of WEDC grants have gone to Walker contributors.

The barrage of ominous economic news, coupled with increasingly precarious living standards for Wisconsin families, may make the public more receptive to the UAW’s appeals for standing up to a major corporation flush with cash. But given Kohler’s immense financial resources and long-standing networks with conservative groups, the union still faces a massive task in taking its case to the public both in the state and nationally to pressure Kohler to seriously negotiate rather than relocate production from the city that gave rise to the family fortune.

Local 833’s office in Emil Mazey Hall has been bustling with union delegations from around the state arriving with food, firewood, and other supplies needed for the strike. Transit Union Local 998 leaders from Milwaukee, 50 miles away, dropped in with food and supplies, along with sharing stories of their successful and highly-targeted three-day strike.

But overcoming Kohler’s might—if the corporation flexes its muscles—will likely require more than traditional forms of solidarity. It is to demand a likely full-scale public-education campaign both in Wisconsin and around the nation, with the UAW using all of its resources to enlist the broadest possible support

The union can expect that, if Kohler follows a familiar management ploy, that it will try to arouse resentment of the UAW members by pointing out that their pay is substantially higher than at other employers in the area.

Kohler seems certain to continue promoting the idea that the future of the Sheboygan manufacturing operation rests in the union’s hands rather than the corporation’s. If the union refuses to be “reasonable,” it — not the corporation— will then be blamed for dragging down the local community economically. This was a maneuver used skillfully by Mercury Marine in 2010 to build up community pressure in Fond du Lac, Wisconsin to force the International Association of Machinists there to accept a two-tier contract in the face of the company’s threat to relocate to a plant in Oklahoma.

While Kohler will attempt to minimize the UAW’s positon by casting it in strictly economic terms supposedly out of touch with current economic realities, the union’s task will be to build support for the strike by projecting it as a moral battle against unrestrained greed.

If negotiations fail to yield a settlement, the UAW will likely need to prepare for the same kind of massive mobilization that in 2011 resulted in enormous crowds surrounding the Capitol in Madison in support of public employee rights under attack by Gov. Scott Walker. Public unions in 2011 also benefitted from a continuous stream of material support from unions locally, nationally and internationally. Adding to the workers’ morale were appearances by numerous international unions presidents, leaders on the Left like Sen. Bernie Sanders and the Rev. Jesse Jackson, and film industry figures such as Michael Moore and Susan Sarandon and musicians like Tom Morello of Rage Against the Machine.

Given the present imbalance between labor and capital, only an innovative full-spectrum campaign to build support led by the UAW will make another victory at Kohler possible, three veteran labor activists told The Progressive Populist.

Roger Bybee is a Milwaukee-based writer and University of Illinois visiting professor in Labor Education. He edited The Racine Labor weekly for 14 years. Email winterbybee@gmail.com.

From The Progressive Populist, January 1-15, 2016


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