The Kohler Tradition

More than 2,000 workers remain on strike in Kohler, Wisconsin, a site of historic struggles for labor rights.

Former Wisconsin Gov. Walter J. Kohler, head of the Kohler Company is allowed entry to his office during the workers' 1934 strike.

On a Sunday night late last month, the third-shift picket lines at the gates of the colossal Kohler plant were jammed with Tier B workers — cracking jokes, getting to know one another outside the heat of the foundry, off the assembly line.

It was the night shift, something like midnight. The line that night was young and international. Women and men. Third-generation German-American Kohler workers joined by Hmong-American, Latino, and black fellow workers. At their side were young migrants from southern Wisconsin and upstate New York, and many other small and large places.

Workers warmed themselves, and each other, at the burn barrels. They stood in vigils of at least fifteen at each of the plant gates, and kept guard in pickets of six or more at several points around the factories’ walled perimeter.

The Kohler Company’s gargantuan, vertically integrated plant is an all-in-one — a faucet foundry, generator plant, plumbing assembly line, and logistics center. The plant sits at the heart of the Village of Kohler, a company fief of about two thousand people just outside Sheboygan, WI, on the coastal prairie of central Wisconsin’s Lake Michigan shoreline.

Production had been at a standstill for two weeks. On the afternoon of November 15, in the Emil Mazey Hall of UAW Local 833, Kohler workers had voted 94 percent for a walkout. Immediately after, they staged their first mass picket — a march from the hall in Sheboygan through the streets of Kohler, and to the plant gates. The next day, Monday morning, another mass picket announced again the plant was struck.

“Whole plant’s really shut down?” I asked later that month, standing with the veteran worker Roger Romelfaenger and a nineteen-year-old named Jared — he’d only been on the job for three days when the strike vote was held. Other workers stood by the burn barrels, stuffed with donations from workers’ neighbors: woodsmen and hunters came by every few hours with fresh firewood. We all guarded the intersection of Rds. PP and A in Sheboygan County, the critical shipping gate and rear entrance to the facility.

Roger was a third-generation Kohler fighter. But he’d only been back in his hometown a few years, after thirty years as an over-the-road trucker. Roger thought he’d retired — but his wife, his California girl, got sick. So he headed back to the plant, back to the Kohler factories his family had built over generations of work and struggle.

“Yeah, the whole thing is shut down,” Roger said. Jared and I listened in tough-guy silence, black-and-white hoodies swaddling our heads. He went on. “Well, I guess there are about thirty scabs bussed in from somewhere, staying in the La Quinta hotel, and maybe they’re putting the office workers on the line, too.”  He chuckled. “But I heard six of the office ones quit rather than cross the line, so.”

“All they can do is stuff washers in poly bags at this point, and DC [the Distribution Center] is shut down too.”

Nothing in.  Nothing out.

A tradition of disciplined militancy, democracy, and solidarity has guided generations of workers in Kohler. That history stretches back to the mass strikes of 1934, when Kohler employees joined a national movement demanding union recognition, first contracts, and a fundamental change in power on the plant floor.

The demands then were not so different than the stakes today, in Scott Walker’s Wisconsin. Kohler workers fought for the fruits of their labor, for equality of all workers, and for workers’ power on the shop floor. To build a real democracy, in work as in the state.

The 1934 strike was brutally repressed — an army of deputies killed two workers, and injured scores more. “They were shot in the back,” Roger’s father told him. Violating the new federal right to organize an independent union, the Kohler Company settled the strike by allowing a company union to rise in the plant.

After 1934, through the early 1940s, Roger says memorial strikes occurred annually — keeping the fight for industrial democracy and a union contract at Kohler alive, if submerged. Finally, in 1954–55, during the last gasps of McCarthyism in Wisconsin — just as the Montgomery Bus Boycott was sparking the Civil Rights Movement — a new chapter opened in the history of the workers’ movement in the United States. UAW Local 833 called a strike for recognition.

It lasted twelve bitter years. But in 1966, Local 833 celebrated victory: recognition and their first union contract.

In 1983, a new generation at Kohler defied the divide-and-conquer tactics of the Reagan years, striking again. By that time, the Kohler Company had learned its lesson. It settled just sixteen days into the strike.

But by 2010, amid the recession and the worldwide business-class crackdown on workers’ wages and rights, the Kohlers’ line had hardened. The company secured a contract that included a five-year wage freeze, massive insurance premiums, and a two-tier wage structure: new hires would start at something like $11, even pouring iron in the foundry’s 115-degree heat, even moving all the hundred-pound units in the warehouse. By the time the five-year contract was up, the Kohler family had cracked $7.7 billion in assets.

David Kohler, the new operating partner in the Kohler Company, “is out to make his first billion for himself. The greed is out of control,” second-shift warehouse steward Gary Brown told me.

No joke. Another worker told me that a member of the Kohler family once said, “In the worst economy in decades, we haven’t lost a dime.”

The same has not been true for workers these last five years. Not in Wisconsin, not in the United States, not in Europe — not anywhere in the Global North.

In the Global South, however, new forms of organizing and struggles have increased wages fivefold in some places — including China’s industrial heartland, where Kohler also operates factories and where strikes are common. Today, there are hints of this phenomenon — new-model workers’ struggle, a new movement to reclaim power and money from the powers that be — in the American South, and in the US’s “right-to-work” zones.

Seen from this perspective, Kohler is a central battle in a large-scale struggle to claw back hard-fought gains — and win new rights.

As one Local 833 member put it to me, “Kick a dog so many times, he’ll bite back.”

The company’s attacks on its employees do not stop at the plant gates. Most Kohler workers live in Sheboygan — and a few in the villages that dot the countryside — but some also live in houses on the land the Kohler Company bought in 1912: the Village of Kohler.

There, the tyranny characteristic of company towns rears its head. On the picket line at the plant’s central clocktower, a longtime Kohler worker who goes by the name of Carpenter told me, “The village police rode up to my house. They told me to take down the picket sign I planted in the yard. I informed the cop of the First Amendment, so he drove off — but not without sending a message.”

The stakes were on clear display on Veterans Day, days before the strike. The police stopped the Village of Kohler Veterans Day Parade — “for disturbing the peace,” workers told me. UAW Local 833 and the veterans had presented a united front, for an end to the two-tier wage system and a new contract.

If the Kohler strike is for the equality of Tier A and Tier B workers — for the abolition of that distinction over the life of the contract — it is also a struggle for workers’ rights on the shop floor, and in society at large: for democracy in America.

Kohler workers seem to harbor no illusions about the ease of that struggle. One Tier B worker told me they were prepared to fight for “months, or years”— common sense in Kohler in 2015, just as it was during the strikes of 1934 and 1954 and 1983.