Lessons of the longest strike in history to be reviewed

Jim Baumgart  Sheboygan County Supervisor

“The Kohler Strikes: Three Decades of Struggle” is a major part of Sheboygan County history. The Wisconsin Labor History Society (Affiliated with the Wisconsin Historical Society) will be holding a conference that will remind and relive the longest strike in US history when the workers of Kohler sought to organize their union. That conference will take place on Saturday, May 17, at Emil Mazey Hall, 5425 Superior Avenue, Sheboygan.

Those interested in the history of the labor movement, or maybe someone who lived through the 1954 Kohler strike or had relatives killed (2) or wounded and injured (40) in the Kohler labor dispute of the 1930’s may wish to attend.

Registration begins at 8:30 a.m with the last presentation beginning at 1:30 p.m. Cost is $30 (includes luncheon and materials) or $10 for unemployed and students. Payment for the event should go to: Wisconsin Labor History Society, 6333 West Blue Mound Road, Milwaukee, WI 53213. Registration is requested by May 10th.

Your will hear from: - Roger Bybee, labor writer and editor of the former Racine Labor paper.

- Panel Discussion, “Reliving the Strikes and Their Meaning” with panel members, Gordy Bill- mann (retired local 833 member), Cal Potter (former State Senator who experienced the strike as a young student - his father was one of the strikers), Charles Conrardy (former President of Local 833), Julius Siech (retired UAW 833 member), and Dave Boucher (UAW 833 President).

- Karen Lewis (President, Chicago Teachers Union), to discuss “The Chicago Teachers Union Experience”.

- Joe Burns (author, labor attorney, union representative) “Reviving the Strike”.

Any questions about the event or tickets, please contact Jim Carison at: carison @weac.org.

Some background: The Kohler Company, its workers and the lakeshore community is historically interesting just by themselves.

Early on in abot 1912the young Kohler company moved its operations from the City of Sheboygan to its present location.

It was a planned community with enough land for future expansion. Special rooms, affordable housing, and community activities were developed for the many immigrant and local workers that came to work at the Kohler Company.

Like many growing businesses of the time, things went fairly well until the Great Depression.

Back in1930’s issues of work, wages and representation (company union vs AFL union) and other concerns came to the surface. As a quick version, a conflict developed, a strike was call, special deputies hired, clashes with picketers took place, large crowd(s) assembled, rioting took place and people died, were wounded and injured, and the National Guard was called in.

As can be said, the rest is history that will be discussed on May 17. It was not a nice time and lessons of cooperation should have been learned.

In 1952, the leaders of the company union voted to affiliate with the United Auto Workers (UAW) of America. - later the National Labor Relation Board supervised an election and Local 833 of the UAW was selected.

Eventually, in February of 1953 a contract was agreed upon. At the end of the contact and the termination of the initial UAW contact coming to end on March 1, in 1954 a deadlock in negotiations was taking place.

On March 14, with 3,344 Kohler employees eligible to vote, with 1,253 voting: 1,105 voted in favor of a strike and 148 opposed it.

It set the stage for the longest strike in United States history.

The strike caused major divisions within the community and sometimes within families themselves that still exist.

We can learn from the past to improve the present. Gaining an understanding of the issues of those days certainly can be a learning tool for today and tomorrow.

If your interested in the program and subject, I’m sure they would love to have your participation.

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