Kohler strikers need solidarity

December 16, 2015

Michael Billeaux, former co-president of the Teaching Assistants' Association (TAA), which represents graduate student workers at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, makes the case for unions organizing support for the striking workers at the faucet and fixture manufacturer Kohler in Wisconsin. The TAA voted unanimously at its general membership meeting on December 11 to donate funds to the workers on the picket line at the plant near Sheboygan, Wisconsin. At the end of this article is the full text of TAA's resolution.

THE 2,100 workers at Kohler, members of United Auto Workers (UAW) Local 833, are on strike to restore concessions they gave up in their 2010 contract, when the faucet and fixture manufacturer took advantage of the economic crisis to freeze wages, reduce benefits and introduce a two-tier system. Since 2010, new hires in Kohler's second tier make only 65 percent of regular pay, as little as $11.50 per hour.

The elimination of the two-tier system is the defining issue for the strike at Kohler. Generally speaking, big manufacturing firms made major headway in implementing two-tier wage structures in 2007 after the UAW accepted two-tier contracts in the Big Three auto companies in the midst of the auto industry crisis. The spread of the two-tier wage system is a disaster for the working class and the labor movement and a fundamental violation of the principle of equal pay for equal work. Breaking apart the two-tier system at Kohler would be a huge win for the labor movement in the fight to maintain that principle.

Kohler workers in Wisconsin stand strong on the picket line
Kohler workers in Wisconsin stand strong on the picket line

What's more, as Joe Burns writes in In These Times, the strike at Kohler could be a watershed moment for the labor movement. As an open-ended strike by a large manufacturing workforce--which is exceedingly rare in today's labor movement--the strike at Kohler can show other workers that it's still possible to assert power at the workplace through militant collective action.

The strike tactic is always risky. Victory comes down to a matter of who can wait the longest: the boss or the workers. Bosses have the immense reserves they've accumulated from having exploited workers--workers only have whatever wages they've managed to save, often inadequate strike funds, and, of course, solidarity. Material and moral support from other parts of the labor movement are crucial for maintaining the morale of the workers, and their financial capacity to hold out longer than the boss.

When the union wins, workers are in turn better able to support other unions in later struggles. This is why all unions must see every strike as vital to the labor movement as a whole. With the labor movement at a historic level of weakness and top labor leadership timid about militant demands and tactics, solidarity is especially vital.

This basic view toward revitalizing the labor movement animated members of the Teaching Assistants' Association (TAA) when we voted to donate $1,000 to UAW Local 833's strike fund at our membership meeting on December 11. At the meeting, we also passed a hat and raised an additional $200 for the fund, and the TAA's Political Education Committee independently donated $250. In all, so far, the TAA has donated nearly $1,500 in support of the Kohler strike.

The original proposal on the floor was to give $300, but during discussion, the resolution was amended to higher sum of $1,000 on the basis of a motion by a teaching assistant from the Zoology Department. To paraphrase his reasoning for the amendment: We're a small union of underpaid workers. If we can pay $1,000, maybe we can show the other unions that they should be doing much more.

He had a point. After all, after Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker's "Budget Repair Bill" that eviscerated public-sector union rights in Wisconsin, the TAA has operated as an unrecognized minority union. It has no staff and no paid officers, running almost entirely on the time and effort of volunteer members. Since 2011, the TAA and the grad workers it represents have lived and worked without a contract, and members, who average less than $15,000 per year in earnings, are about to see health benefits severely reducedon January 1.

How can an organization in this position justify a $1,000 expense on anything other than its own survival? Easy: The $1,000 was spent on our own survival. The victory of the Kohler strike will be our victory, too, and our future depends on it.

The TAA resolution, reproduced below in full, attempted to make the case for why all unions must contribute to a victory at Kohler. We encourage other union members to use this text as a template to put forward resolutions in their own locals.

Resolution to Support UAW Local 833 Workers' Strike at Kohler

WHEREAS, since November 15, 2,000 workers represented by United Auto Workers (UAW) Local 833 at the Kohler Company faucet factory have been on an open-ended strike, and;

WHEREAS, the workers are striking to eliminate the two-tier wage system whereby one group of workers--usually those hired after a certain date--are compensated at reduced wages and benefits compared to their older counterparts, and;

WHEREAS, the two-tier wage system at Kohler was introduced in the 2010 contract, when Kohler management used the economic downturn to justify this concession, and;

WHEREAS, the spread of two-tier after 2007 is a process whereby the representatives of capital use the economic crisis to force a restructuring of the manufacturing labor force into a more low-wage and contingent one, and two-tier represents a fundamental violation of the principle of equal pay for equal work, and;

WHEREAS, we face similar threats in the higher education industry in terms of the restructuring of the labor force (e.g., erosion of tenure, degradation of wages and benefits, the adjunct crisis) and problems of inequitable pay, and therefore have our own stake in the Kohler strike succeeding, and;

WHEREAS, the Kohler Company is owned and operated by a billionaire family with deep ties to the Walker administration, and has historically had access to the highest levels of state and corporate power in the state of Wisconsin, and;

WHEREAS, the Kohler Company has an ugly history of anti-unionism, and has been long renowned as part of the corporate establishment that never accepted or tolerated unionism, and therefore a successful strike at Kohler could become a rallying point for the entire Wisconsin labor movement, and;

WHEREAS, in the labor movement's current state, open-ended strikes at large industrial plants like the type ongoing at Kohler have become uncommon, and the labor movement must relearn how to win these types of strikes if it is to regain its strength and expand, and;

WHEREAS, therefore, there is potential for the UAW 833 strike to be a historic victory that demonstrates the possibility of renewal for the entire nationwide labor movement, and;

WHEREAS, because the likelihood of victory is improved vastly to the extent that external solidarity is organized and mobilized; therefore be it:

RESOLVED, that the TAA donate $1,000 from its own budget to the UAW 833 strike fund, and be it further:

RESOLVED, that the TAA take up a cash collection for the strikers at the current General Membership Meeting, and be it further

RESOLVED, that the TAA encourage its membership to mobilize to answer the call put out by UAW Local 833 to travel to Kohler, Wisconsin, for picket support on Saturday, December 19, and be it also:

RESOLVED, that the TAA encourage its membership to make donations for the strikers in any of the following ways:

1. Write checks made out to "Kohler UAW 833 Workers Relief Fund," and;

2. Donate non-perishables such as diapers, baby wipes and cleaning products, and;

3. Participate in the toy drive for strikers' children by donating new, unpackaged toys; and be it further

RESOLVED, that members make their donations to the TAA office, so that these can be taken to Kohler all at once by the TAA picket support delegation, and be it further:

RESOLVED, that TAA volunteers along with PEC help to extend the network of solidarity for the Kohler strikers by:

1. Working through the South Central Federation of Labor to help continue to mobilize solidarity (e.g., statements, picket support, donations) from other AFL-CIO unions in the region and beyond, and;

2. Working through the Coalition of Graduate Employee Unions to help continue to mobilize solidarity from other graduate worker unions, especially those within the UAW.

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