Kohler union goes on strike

KOHLER – The latest chapter in the long tale of strikes against the Kohler Co. began Sunday.

Members of the United Auto Workers Local 833 rejected what Kohler Co. officials Saturday termed their “last, best and final contract offer” by an overwhelming 94 percent.

The strike is the first in more than three decades against the family-owned kitchen and bath equipment manufacturer, but the fourth in the nearly century and a-half history of the company.

The union began picketing the Kohler facilities of the company shortly after Sunday’s vote during a membership meeting at Sheboygan South High School attended by an estimated 1,800 of the roughly 2,1000 Kohler production workers.

The union and the company reached a five-year agreement in late 2010 which included a five-year wage freeze, higher health care premiums and the creation of a two-tiered wage and benefit system.

All three of those items are at issue in the current standoff, with union officials seeking significant wage increases for the lower-tier and newer employees.

The company, in its final offer, proposed three 50- cent raises for most employees, roughly two percent a year.

They also proposed higher health care payments by employees, but also included a $1,200 bonus that the company claimed would cover that cost increase.

UAW Local 833 President Tim Tayloe characterized the two-tier system implemented in the 2010 contract “a huge sticking point” for his membership.

In a statement issued Sunday after the union’s strike vote, company officials expressed disappointment but said plans were in place to continue production, although it offered no details.

“A work stoppage like this will unfortunately cost our associates and can negatively influence our desire to grow jobs in this location,” the company statement continued.

Union members marched from Emil Mazey union hall on Superior Avenue in Sheboygan to the Kohler plant on Highland Avenue Monday morning and began picketing outside the gates of the historic facility.

The march led to congested traffic in the village and along adjacent streets in the city of Sheboygan and surrounding area.

Along with the Kohler facility, the union also represents workers at the Kohler Generator plant in the town of Mosel.

The company, which is in its fourth generation of family ownership, has been the scene of several protracted and even violent labor confrontations in the past.

In the midst of the Great Depression, an attempt by the American Federation of Labor to organize Kohler workers in 1934 in lieu of an existing company union, the Kohler Workers Association, led to a strike that began July 16.

The strike quickly devolved into violence, which led to the village being closed to traffic.

Clashes between picketers and special deputies hired by the company led to violent confrontations July 27 and 28. That resulted in two deaths and 43 injuries and led to a call for the National Guard to restore peace.

Eventually, a majority of Kohler workers voted to remain in the Kohler Workers Association and, with the coming of World War II, union-organizing efforts abated.

That was until the early 1950s, when the United Auto Workers won an election to organize Kohler workers.

Company officials refused to grant union demands during contract negotiations and another strike began on April 5, 1954.

After being idle for two months, the company resumed operations with replacement workers and the situation again led to violence, arrests and calls for a national boycott of Kohler products.

Company officials remained adamantly opposed to the union and the strike dragged through 1960, when the National Labor Relations Board ruled that the company had refused to bargain in good faith with the union and ordered union workers reinstated.

Negotiations to resolve the issues, including compensation for strikers, dragged on until December 1965, when the company agreed to pay $3 million in back wages to around 1,400 former employees and make $1.5 million in pension fund contributions.

It marked the longest major labor strike in American history.

The UAW again struck the company in October 1983, but that strike lasted only two weeks before the two sides reached agreement on a new contract.

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