Nation’s longest strike at Kohler offers lessons for today’s unions

Report from 2014 labor history conference

The longest strike in U.S. history – UAW Local 833 vs. Kohler Co – began in the company town of Kohler, Wisconsin, with massive picket lines on April 5, 1954 and did not end until a settlement in 1966.

The strike may have been one of the most important in our nation’s history and offers insights into how to rebuild labor’s power in the current era, according to speakers at the 33rd Annual Conference of the Wisconsin Labor History Society held May 17 at the Emil Mazey Hall in Sheboygan.  The conference covered three decades of labor struggles at the plant, including the first strike for recognition that lasted from 1934 to 1941.

Several Local 833 retirees who walked the picket lines in the 1954 strike spoke at the conference, describing how worker solidarity sustained them through the long struggle and how various strategies helped to win near total victory.

Opening the conference, labor columnist and former editor Roger Bybee of Milwaukee said “simple solidarity” developed among the union members offering a lesson on how to best prepare union members for today’s struggles for justice.  He said, the union’s heavy reliance upon communications during the strike both with its members and the community is another example of a successful strategy against a company that was determined to kill the union.

He said the union during the second strike was “ahead of the times in communications” through the use of a daily radio show, cool public relations that include strikers dressing like Abraham Lincoln, a regular newsletter and other efforts.  Such strategies would be critical for unions seeking for winning disputes with companies in today’s world, he added.

Times have changed in the last fifty years, Joe Burns, labor attorney, union leader and author of the book, “Reviving the Strike,” said.  Thus, he said, the strike – which is labor’s ultimate weapon – has become a more difficult tactic for unionists.  Labor laws and subsequent court decisions have weakened the strike as a tool by taking away the power to have a “secondary boycott” that allows members of other unions to refuse to handle “struck goods.”

“The rules of the game have been re-written to protect corporate America,” Burns said, who is currently a negotiator with the Flight Attendants Union.  The ability of corporations to move manufacturing overseas, the high unemployment rate that makes it  easier to hire replacement workers, and the employers’ tendency to challenge unions at all costs have all contributed to stacking the deck against workers, he said.

Nonetheless, he argued, “Labor can’t succeed without the right to strike.  It’s all about power.”

Burns agreed the Kohler strike of the 1950s marked a transition in that it was one of the first examples of extreme behaviors of employer resistance to unions.  Prior to that employers sought to bargain with unions, often shutting down during a strike.  From that point on the ideology of the Kohler family to seek to destroy unions has been adopted by corporate America, Burns said.

Yet, there are examples if successful job actions, he said, referring to the nine-day September, 2012, strike of the Chicago Teachers Union.

One of the organizers of that strike, Matthew Luskin, also spoke, noting that the Chicago Teachers Union had built up strong community support prior to the job action.  As a result students and parents joined in supporting the strikers, thus removing the stigma that the striking teachers were unfairly disrupting the education of Chicago’s children.

“Five days into the strike,” he said, ‘polls showed 66% supporting the strike.”

He said the union linked its fight with the causes of racial justice and desire of parents to halt the Chicago School Board’s plan to shut down schools.  While the public supported these issues, they were also issues that their own members felt strongly about.

A lot of the success, too, involved giving the power of decision-making to the members themselves, he said.  For instance, some members wanted to picket Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s home, a strategy the leadership advised against since it might cause a public relations backlash.  Yet, they did picket the mayor’s home and it was a great PR success.

By giving the power to the people, they develop a stronger sense that the cause becomes theirs to win or lose and thus builds solidarity, he said.

In relating their experiences during the 1950s strike, panelists cited the strong community support as key to their success.  Charles Conrardy, who became Local 833 president in 1961, said the credit union, for instance, required strikers to pay only the interest on their mortgages to avoid foreclosure; in addition, he said, “there were lots of jobs available” where strikers could find part-time or temporary work to supplement the strike assistance provided by the UAW.

The UAW created a nation-wide boycott of Kohler products, gaining wide support throughout the labor movement.  Even though secondary boycotts were prohibited at the time, construction workers – particularly those in the plumbing trade – were able to raise enough issues to prompt contractors to shy away from using Kohler fixtures.

Gordon Billmann, who worked 45 years at the company (1943-1988), said he was impressed with the solidarity shown on the first day of the strike.  He recalled strikers came out 3,000 strong to march three-deep around the plant.

Julius Siech, who eventually became vice-president of the local, credited the assistance from the UAW as critical.  “We had a good international union behind us,” he said.  Siech later proved to be a key witness in the NLRB case that found Kohler committed an unfair labor practice by cutting workers from a typical 48 hours (with overtime) week to 32 hours.  He had saved every pay stub from his first week of work at Kohler in 1947 to prove the point.

Cal Potter was about ten-years-old when the strike began; he recalled joining his father on the picket line.  His father was one of the last strikers called back, having been away from the plant for more than ten years.  Potter, who later served some 20 years in the State Legislature (always with labor’s endorsement), recalled that his father worked seasonal jobs at first in a cannery factory and the family used vouchers to get food from the A & P store and for such items as shoes for the children.  His father later gained steady work at a brass factory until being recalled in the settlement.

The strike changed Sheboygan, Potter said, since the community was closely aligned through jobs at Kohler.  Potter and Conrardy both recalled that they knew which families in their neighborhoods included strikers and which included “scabs.”  There are still some who hold grudges against those who scabbed, Conrardy said.

Though the company constantly sought to get strikers to come to work, only about 800 of the 4,000 crossed picket lines, even at the end of the strike, Potter said.

Dave Boucher, current Local 833 president, said the solidarity that brought success in previous strikes seems to have diminished among current members.  In the last contract, the local members voted to accept a two-tier wage system, even though its bargaining committee had unanimously urged rejection.  “A significant number of members don’t vote in their own interests,” he said.

“I stand here in awe of the sacrifices of these people,” Boucher said, referring to the other panelists who carried on the strike that began sixty years before in April.