Workers at the Kohler Plant near Sheboygan, Wisconsin have again been forced to go on strike. Joanne and I drove up to Sheboygan just south of Green Bay on the Wednesday before Thanksgiving to support the strikers with a donation and a turn on the picket line. We also visited the Emil Mazey Union Hall which contains photos and the story of past Union battles with the Kohler ‘Bathtub Barons.’ As in the past, the struggle will have national implications. Can workers establish their right to a voice in the workplace? Currently Labor faces a well organized political enemy and the working community must coalesce in solidarity for justice and the common good. The plant is in a rural area, and we saw a wild turkey near the highway. It reminded us that it was Thanksgiving time and the debt of gratitude we owe to Kohler workers, past and present.
Strike 1897: Kohler vs. Workers’ Voice
Austrian immigrant John Michael Kohler founded the bathroom and kitchen fixture manufacturing plant in 1873. The founder fought worker representation from the beginning. In March of 1897 workers who belonged to the Molders’ Union walked off the job to protest a 50-percent cut in wages. Founder Kohler stated that he would close the plant if the workers did not accept the wage cut; it was explained that the wage cut was needed to meet the competition. The strike failed – and so the story begins.
Strike 1934 – 1941: Workers vs. Fascism
The next attempt to establish the worker’s right to a voice was in 1934. Fascism was fomenting in Europe, especially in Portugal, Spain, Italy, Austria and Germany. Kohler countered the strike for labor recognition with violence resulting in the death of two workers and many injured. The company hired armed unemployed men who were dressed in black shirts – a European symbol of fascism to fight the strikers. Kohler tried the tactic of splitting the workers by establishing a company union to rival an independent union of workers. The strike was settled in 1941 without the company recognizing an independent union. The immediate needs of industrial production for World War II demanded a settlement.
Strike 1954 -1960: The McCarthy Era, Workers are Communists
In 1954 Kohler workers went on strike again to establish their right for an independent voice in the work-place. The Kohler again countered by forming a company union.
The Kohlers were political idealists with reference to the Middle-Ages and feudal lords. They felt that they were responsible to care for workers as they saw fit. Two Kohlers with big bank rolls became governors of Wisconsin. Herbert V. Kohler Sr., company head during part of the ’34-’41 and ’54-’60 strikes, was a spokesman for the extreme right wing Manion Forum. The Forum’s stated purpose, according to a Wall Street Journal article, March 17, 1958, is to wage war by television, radio and printed page against Socialist ‘pubic power,’ unrestrained Labor ‘bossism,’ federal aid to education and other progressive policies.
An example of Kohler paternalism is the Kohler town established for workers and the American Club – a hostel as well as a place for a Kohler version of 'americanizing’ immigrant workers. Such paternalism proved to be un-American, such as the infamous company town of Pullman near Chicago which culminated in a violent strike in 1894.
The climate for Union activity after World War II was toxic. In 1947 the Taft Hartley act was passed by the U.S. Congress which restricted picketing. Also in ’47 workers at Allis Chalmers in Milwaukee lost in a very bitter strike because some leaders were accused of being communists. The Landrum-Griffin Act passed by Congress in 1949 legitimized anti union ‘right to work’ laws passed by states.
Some leaders of the faith community, Jewish, Catholic and Protestant, supported the striking workers at Kohler. Monsignor James Finucan summarized the main issue in a letter to Herbert Kohler Sr.
Men have a right which comes from God, Who created them to form associations and bargain collectively.1
The strike was settled in 1960 and in 1965 the union was awarded $4.5 million in penalties by the N.L.R.B. (National Labor Relations Board)2
Strike 2015: A Sneak Attack by the Walker Administration
The present strike is in an atmosphere of unprecedented anti- democracy/anti-union politics. Governor Scott Walker led the passage of Act 10 which took away bargaining rights from public employees. He also signed ‘Right to Work’ legislation which promotes a split in union strength.
Workers at Kohler are on strike because of the two tier wage system which alienates worker from worker – young from old, and makes union solidarity questionable. Also contended are insurance benefits; the company wants cuts from the previous contract. Kohler makes these demands despite large profits over the five years of the current contract.
Without shame, the Kohler ‘Bathtub Barons’ are trying to cleanse their name by becoming ‘Golf Course Moguls.’ Herb Kohler Junior’s Whistling Straights is host to national golf tournaments. Of course a round of golf for a worker is far too expensive, even with a worker discount.
Again, Kohler workers are fighting for a voice in the workplace.
UAW Local 833 is seeking nonperishable donations such as: cereal, canned goods, and boxed dinners. There is a special need for diapers, formula, baby wipes. The Tier B people are earning such a low wage that they live day to day. Any personal donations to directly support these people may be sent to UAW Local 833, Worker’s Relief & Strike Fund, 5425 Superior Avenue, Sheboygan, WI 53083 .
1. Uphoff, Walter H. Kohler on Strike Thirty Years of Conflict, Beacon Press, Boston, 1966, p. 388.
2. Ibid. p. 421.