Historic Kohler strikes and future

of labor topics at conference

33rd Annual Wisconsin Labor History Society set for May 17 in Sheboygan

The historic three decades of struggles that workers faced at Wisconsin’s Kohler Co. to win decent working conditions will be reviewed – along with their relevance for today’s economy – at the 33rd Annual Conference of the Wisconsin Labor History Society to be held Saturday, May 17 in Sheboygan.

Entitled “The Kohler Strikes – Three Decades of Struggle:  What Can Labor Learn?  What Works Today?” the all-day conference will be held at Emil Mazey Hall, 5425 Superior Ave., Sheboygan, home of United Auto Workers Local 833 which represents workers at the company in nearby Kohler.

Roger Bybee, of Milwaukee, a prominent columnist and editor of the former Racine Labor newspaper, will lead off the conference, tracing the history of the Local 833 efforts to win a contract and decent working conditions.  Two strikes marked the struggle, one in 1934 for recognition, and the other that lasted from 1954 until 1964 making it the longest strike in U. S. history.

Three participants from the last strike – former Local 833 President Charles Conrardy and Gordy Billmann and Julius Siech – and former State Senator Cal Potter will relate experiences as part of a panel that will examine how the strikes affected the community and the workers involved.  Current Local 833 President Dave Boucher will discuss the local’s situation today.

Looking at how unions can move ahead in today’s difficult economy will be Matthew Luskin, organizer for the Chicago Teachers Union, and Joe Burns, author, labor attorney and union representative.

Luskin was the lead organizer of the Chicago Teachers in their community-wide strike in September 2012, fighting back management demands for an unfair teacher evaluation system, halting the merit pay proposal and ensuring protections for teachers in phased out schools.

Burns, author of Reviving the Strike: How Working People Can Regain Power and Transform America, argues that workers will need to rediscover the power of the strike. Not the ineffectual strike of today, where employees meekly sit on picket lines waiting for scabs to take their jobs, but the type of strike capable of grinding industries to a halt—the kind employed up until the 1960s.

An open discussion will follow the presentations of Lewis and Burns.

Lunch will be served and the Society will present its annual awards to high school students for their essays on labor history, college and graduate students for their research and a “Solidarity Award” to an individual for lifetime achievement to workers, unions and the community.

Established in 1981, the Society is an affiliate of the Wisconsin Historical Society and is supported by the Wisconsin State AFL-CIO and many local unions and labor councils in Wisconsin.

Full information on registering for the conference is available at the WLHS website (  Unionists, teachers, students, historians and all interested persons are welcome.  Downloadable Flyer.


“Fighting Inequality” topic brings more than 80 to 32nd Wisconsin Labor History Annual Conference

Bill Fletcher, Jr., prominent union and civil rights leader, author and commentator, called for greater inclusiveness in unions as a way to strengthen the causes for working people.  He gave the keynote address at the 32nd Annual Conference of the Wisconsin Labor History Society in Waukesha on Saturday, April 20.

More than 80 persons packed the Machinist Lodge 1377 hall for the day-long stimulating conference, entitled “Fighting Inequality: A Wisconsin Tradition.” will be held at Machinist Local 1377 hall at 1726 S. West St., in Waukesha, beginning at 9 a.m. and continuing to 3:30 p.m.

A longtime labor, racial justice and international activist, Fletcher is a founder of the Black Radical Congress and is a Senior Scholar for the Institute for Policy Studies in Washington, DC. He was formerly the Vice President for International Trade Union Development Programs for the George Meany Center of the AFL-CIO, and previously served as Education Director and later Assistant to the President of the AFL-CIO.

Fletcher is the author of “They’re Bankrupting Us: And 20 Other Myths About Unions,” published in 2012 by Beacon Press.

His opening remarks were followed by three sessions:

  • A presentation by Laura Dresser, associate director of the Center on Wisconsin Strategy, discussing: “Narrowing the Racial and Income Gap,” in which she traced how wide the gaps have become between income groups.
  • A Symposium, “Inequality and Diversity in Labor’s Struggles,” moderated by Sheila Cochran of the Milwaukee Area Labor Council, with testimonies by veterans of the labor and civil rights movements in Wisconsin.
  • A Panel Discussion, “Redeeming Labor’s Power,” involving persons who have been leaders in solidarity movements.

An awards luncheon honored the five winners of the Society’s annual labor history essay contest for high school students.  The Associations’ annual Lifetime Achievement award was given to Ken Greening, a retired member of Plumbers Local 75 in Milwaukee, for his longtime involvement and volunteer work in various causes supporting worker issues.

View Summer 2013 issue of WLHS newsletter for complete report.  Click here.

Report on 2012 Labor History Conference . . .

Wisconsin’s progressive history

offers hope for workers

If there was any thought that history is irrelevant in today’s world, that was dispelled at the 31st Annual Conference of the Wisconsin Labor History Society held April 21 in Milwaukee.

“History is powerful,” said Shel Stromquist, the conference keynote speaker, in setting the tone for the daylong event held concurrently with the conferences of the Labor and Working Class History Association (LAWCHA) and the Organization of American Historians (OAH) going on at a hotel some three blocks away.  Stromquist, professor of history at the University of Iowa and incoming LAWCHA president, was among the founders of the Wisconsin society in 1981 when he was at the University of Wisconsin – Madison.

Never far from the thoughts of the more than 80 participants was the fact that Wisconsin workers and their unions are engaged in a historic struggle to preserve basic worker rights and constant references were made to the anti-union actions of Gov. Scott Walker and the Republican-controlled legislature.  There were references, too, of the gigantic rallies held in Madison and of the recall elections being conducted in the state to counter the Republican actions.

Speaker after speaker reiterated the belief that working people need to learn from the past in order to respond effectively to the assault against workers and their unions that is so present in today’s world.

Stromquist said that “collaborative action by workers is back,” noting that the Madison rallies of 2011 help to spur on campaigns later in other states.  “It’s hard to imagine the Occupy movement without the uprising in Madison,” he said.

He called the current worker uprising the “new Wisconsin Idea,” comparing it to the original “Wisconsin Idea” formulated early in the 20th Century that developed many pioneering social and worker justice developments.  The old Wisconsin Idea, he said, looked to the experts (most of them like John R. Commons from the University) while the “new Wisconsin Idea” looks to the power of the workers.

“Workers have seen the vicious attacks by capital on worker rights,” he said, and have responded with popular mobilizations as shown in Madison.

The conference theme was “It’s Not Over: Reclaiming Wisconsin’s Labor Heritage,” and Steve Cupery, WLHS President and a teachers’ union representative, proclaimed in opening the conference that “This is only the beginning.  Something is in the wind and the fight will never be over.”  (Read Cupery’s complete remarks here.)

Workers and unions are fighting on many fronts and Sheila Cochrane, secretary-treasurer of the Milwaukee Area Labor Council (AFL-CIO) reminded the audience that “within organized labor, we are all workers.”  She said the enemies of labor are seeking to “divide us,” but that it was important to remember that all workers have common goals.

The conference was held in the downtown union hall of the Milwaukee Area Local of the American Postal Workers Union, and Paul McKenna, local president, said the local, formed on Dec. 6, 1906, was the 3rd postal worker unit in the nation.  He added that despite being in an “open shop” environment, the local was 96% organized.

He noted how it took the “Great Postal Strike of 1970” to get Congress to provide collective bargaining rights to the workers.  Now the union is seeking to convince Congress not to cut back on postal services that would cost tens of thousands of jobs.  “We have to focus on Congress now,” he said.

It was obvious from the discussions that it will take mobilization on many levels to maintain and strengthen worker rights, including electoral politics, legislation and direct action.

Mike Konopacki, prominent cartoonist favored by many unions, said the ability to characterize the boss in a humorous or derisive manner can often work to mobilize workers, while Peter Rickman, an organizer with the “We Are Wisconsin” group, said the use of modern social networking strategies, while important, is only a complement to organizing.  “New Media and old-fashioned methods have merged,” he said.

The story of the closing of the giant Janesville, Wisconsin, GM plant – at the time the oldest company facility in the nation – is being memorialized in a documentary being prepared for PBS.  Brad Lichtenstein, the videographer, showed scenes from the forthcoming film, including one scene depicting Gov. Walker telling Janesville business people of his plan to “divide” the workers in order to weaken their unions.

The conference ended with five activists outlining strategies for restoring Wisconsin to its previous progressive nature.

(See full report in Printed Newsletter.  Click here.)