Support for striking Kohler workers grows

As Christmas nears, support for striking workers at Kohler is snowballing.

The strikers on December 14 received a $42,000 donation from the North Central Regional Council Carpenters Union and $10,000 plus a large food donation from the International Union of Operating Engineers Local 139.

On December 13, members of UAW Local 407, whose members work at Unit Drop Forge in Milwaukee, dropped by the strikers’ union hall to write a solidarity check.

The check and others like it from unions all over the Midwest as well a donations of food help sustain the striking workers and their families.

Members of UAW Local 833 have been on strike for four weeks to end the company’s two-tiered wage system, which pays new workers substantially less than workers who were on the job when the last collective bargaining agreement expired.

“The support from the community has been extremely wonderful,” said Julie Baird, a retired Kohler worker who has been volunteering at the union food pantry during the strike.

“We’ve had hundreds of donations” in the form of food and money since the strike began,” said Jim Brock, a striking Kohler worker and member of UAW Local 833, while walking the picket line.

Baird said that she thinks that the reason that the strikers are receiving so much support is that people “have seen that Kohler family’s wealth has risen and they are being greedy.”

Kohler is a family owned business that manufacturers bathroom products such as toilets, sinks, and bathtubs at its factory in Kohler, Wisconsin, about 55 miles north of Milwaukee.

The Kohler family is one the state’s most prominent families in both business and politics. Two Kohlers have served as Wisconsin governors.

The head of the Kohler business until recently was Herbert Kohler, whose wealth according to Forbes is estimated to be $7.4 billion.

He retired and was succeeded as CEO in June by his son David.

The strike began on November 15 after members of UAW Local 833 rejected the company’s last, best, and final offer for a new collective bargaining agreement.

Before rejecting the contract, 94 percent of the union members voted to authorize a strike unless the company presented a fair offer.

The company’s offer maintained  a two tier wage system implemented when the company was profitable, but the country as a whole was just emerging from a recession and unemployment was high.

According to the union, Tier B workers at Kohler under the current collective bargaining agreement are paid between $12.50 and $13 an hour. Tier A workers, about 85 percent of the workforce, are paid $21 to $22 an hour.

The company’s last, best, and final offer closes the gap between Tier A and Tier B workers a bit but it does so over a period of three years. At the end of the proposed contract, Tier B workers would still be making 73 percent of what Tier A workers are making while doing the same work.

David Kohler argues that the two tier wage system is needed to sustain good paying jobs in Wisconsin.

But straight time pay for a Tier B job amounts to a yearly salary between 133 percent and 150 percent of the federal poverty level for a family of three.

“How Tier B is struggling is evidenced daily,” said David Brisch,  a Local 833 members and a Tier A worker at Kohler. “Before the strike, we had people coming (to work) who were living in their cars. Even before the strike we were helping them out.”

Kohler’s last, best, and final offer also sharply increased healthcare cost for all workers.

The company wants us to accept an “increase in insurance payments that literally gobbled up any wage increases that were offered,” said Brock.

Despite the winter weather, union members have maintained an around the clock picket line at the factory.

Production has nearly come to a halt, and as a result, Kohler and the union have returned to the bargaining table.

Neither side will comment on whether any progress has been made, but the talks have been continuing for more than a week now.

The UAW international office is urging people to support the Kohler strikers by signing a petition, making donations, and joining the picket line when possible.

“Kohler workers from UAW Local 833 are striking for fairness for all,” reads a message on the UAW website. “In their time on the picket line, they have faced the elements, a heavy private security presence from Kohler, and an injunction to limit picketing–but it has not dampened their spirits. Show them your support now!”