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Working In These Times

Friday, Oct 8, 2010, 1:49 pm

Another Corporate Squeeze: Profitable Kohler Co. Pushes Drastic Concessions

BY Roger Bybee

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Is a strike on the horizon?   (Photo by SCOTT OLSON/Getty Images)

UAW local stages 'informational picket' in protest

The Kohler Co., the giant manufacturer of plumbing and other products, has become the latest profitable Wisconsin corporation to seek to exploit the recession by flushing decades of hard-won union gains down the drain.

Kohler is seeking to impose a drastic set of concessions as it negotiates with United Auto Workers Local 833 on a new contract: a five-year wage freeze for those currently working, the establishment of a three-tiered workforce, and the right to employ caste of "perma-temps," as they are called elsewhere, for up to 25% of the total hours worked. The perma-temps would earn 35% less than current workers, be denied from union representation, and excluded from healthcare coverage until they had worked 1,000 hours.

In the case of Kohler, those improvements for workers were achieved by enduring a 1934 massacre (in which two workers were killed) and a nine-year strike from 1956 to 1965, the longest in U.S. history. Longtime Kohler workers like retiree Larry Klein recognize the stakes:

What our forefathers gave to us and fought for is completely being thrown out the window. Union-busting is what it is -- get the employees against the employees.

Kohler is following much the same model as executives at two other solidly-profitable and highly visible firms, Mercury Marine and Harley Davidson and  managed to extort massive concessions from their unions, as covered herehere, here, and here. (As a family-owned corporation, Kohler is not required to divulge data on company profits and executive pay)

UAW LOCAL 833 ALREADY WAGING PUBLIC FIGHT

UAW members are outraged by the effort to roll back union gains and to drive a divisive stake into the heart of the union, all without any justification except global competitiveness. "They've never claimed that they're going broke," said Dave Strohschoeb, a trustee of United Auto Workers Local 833. "It's always about competitiveness."

Negotiations are ongoing; union and company officials are due back at the bargaining table on Monday, the Sheboygan Press reported.  Both sides agreed to extend the existing UAW-Kohler contract last week in hopes of striking a deal, which would affect 1,937 workers in Sheboygan county.

"Under their proposal, they could lay me off and bring me back and pay me the same wages I made in 1997, but it's not 1997," said Tim Tolman, 47, a 15-year employee who became a temporary Kohler worker last year following a companywide layoff. "I think it's totally unfair."

Unlike at Mercury Marine and Harley Davison, Kohler's demands were greeted early on by Local 833 displays of solidarity and community support. The concession package was answered with a massive informational picket line held by the local on Wednesday that drew "thousands" of supporters, according to area newspapers.

If Kohler persists in its demands, it may be bring on yet another war with its workers.

Roger Bybee is a Milwaukee-based freelance writer and University of Illinois visiting professor in Labor Education. Roger's work has appeared in numerous national publications, including Z magazine, Dollars & Sense, The Progressive, Progressive Populist, Huffington Post, The American Prospect, Yes! and Foreign Policy in Focus. More of his work can be found at zcommunications.org/zspace/rogerdbybee.

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