Kohler workers’ strike in the US

Workers demand an abolition to the two-tier pay system and equality among all the company's employees.

US manufacturing conglomerate the Kohler Company last month faced the fourth major strike in its 140-year history as workers backed by the United Auto Workers (UAW) trade union brought proceedings to a halt on 15 November. Their action followed years of wage inequality, imposed on 400 new staff since 2010.

Kohler, famous for its production of bathroom and kitchen units, plumbing supplies and a whole host of other products, also owns a string of hotels. The company has given its name to the village it founded in Wisconsin in 1900 to house its employees. The company is still the major employer in the village.

Back in 2010, workers at Kohler were pushed into accepting a concessionary contract. The terms of the contract were a pay freeze for five years, an increase in healthcare premiums, and the creation of a two-tier wage and benefit system, whereby existing employees were protected (for the time being) from the 65 percent lower wage packets that new employees were being offered.

In addition, the ‘limited’ use of temporary employees was accepted by the workers, both in continuing to cut back numbers of permanent employees and in creating the conditions whereby scab labour would be available in the event of strikes.

While most Kohler workers hired before 2010 make around $25 an hour, workers employed post-2010 have had that basic rate almost halved – capped at $13 hourly irrespective of the individual’s skill or experience. Additionally, healthcare costs since 2010 have been raised by 800 percent, from around $35 to over $280 per month.

Unsurprisingly, since the imposition of the concessionary contract and its slashing of workers’ pay (forced under familiar threat that the recession made such drastic measures necessary to keep the company afloat), the Kohler family’s wealth has increased from an already somewhat impressive $2.2bn to an astronomical $7.4bn. Clearly, the lack of profitability originally cited by the company as the reason for its draconian cuts to wages and conditions was merely a deceptive cloak for a further assault by Kohler on workers’ rights and livelihoods to quench an unquenchable thirst for profits.

Kohler workers have now demanded the abolition of the two-tier system, the raising of wages of post-2010 employees to the benchmark of pre-2010 staff, asking merely for equality among all its workers.

In a truly insincere response, Kohler made its ‘final offer’ of a pay increase that, after three years’ employment, would amount to an incremental rise of 8 cents an hour. But Kohler workers dismissed this shameful offer and its sweetener of a bonus of $1,200 – which would barely cancel out proposed further increases in healthcare costs!

One worker, who has been employed by the company for 15 years, said: “It’s a billion-dollar company haggling over pennies.” Since the strike started, the UAW has stated that it has had no response from management about returning to negotiations.

But, as uncertain as the unfolding of this particular struggle may appear, one thing that is certain is that the workers at Kohler have a long history of standing united and strong against their mistreatment by corporate management. In July 1934, Kohler workers went on strike after demands made by the American Federation of Labour (AFL) for a 62.5 percent wage increase and a 25 percent reduction in hours resulted in second-generation Walter Kohler closing the plant.

Kohler called in armed thugs, relying on tear gas and guns to respond to attacks on company property, which resulted in more than 40 demonstrators being injured and two killed. Two hundred and fifty National Guard were even called out against the protestors, who, during this time, had confined Mr Kohler to the boundaries of his own building.

In September that year, Kohler workers finally won their first major battle, as a ‘union shop’ was legally secured through Congress at the company.

Then, in 1954, began the longest strike in US history after Kohler Company again refused to meet a number of workers’ demands over salary, insurance, pensions and union security. Over 80 percent of the workforce turned out day after day, year after year demanding a fair deal, and causing plant closure for two months.

Kohler’s management soon sought out non-unionised workers and resumed production, but they were still not able to defeat the workers, who for over six years stood firm and maintained their demands, preventing the normal operation of the plant.

As a result of this epic struggle, Kohler was ordered to reinstate 1,700 workers who had been laid off, and was later forced to pay $3m in compensation to those who had not been reemployed and another $1.5m in pension fund contributions, proving once again that defiance against mismanagement through militant class struggle is the only way for workers truly to achieve their goals.

Further reading

The New American – The Kohler Strike of 1954
Big Story – Hundreds of union members picket in strike at Kohler Company
Fight Back – Kohler workers on strike