“A long strike is usually a losing strike,” observes the noted labor historian Nelson Lichtenstein. Yet the longest strike in U.S. history—the United Auto Workers’ seven-year battle with the Kohler Corporation from 1954 to 1961—turned into a remarkable victory for the union. The strike was centered in Sheboygan, Wisconsin, a town of about 50,000 located on the shores of Lake Michigan. Kohler, founded in 1873 to produce bathroom and kitchen fixtures, began as a company town, offering housing and amenities to workers. But early on, when Kohler started cutting wages , a an unsuccessful strike erupted in 1897 but failed despite drawing the direct involvement of socialist leaders Eugene Debs and future congressperson Victor Berger.
The Kohlers were undoubtedly the most powerful family in the state, having produced two governors: Walter Kohler Sr. from 1929-31, and later Walter Jr., during the first three years of the strike, with his two terms beginning in 1951 and ending in 1957. The Kohlers also produced another family member, Terry, who ran for governor in 1982 and who was trounced as he preached “jobs, jobs, jobs, jobs” while the Vollrath Corporation he headed had been moving jobs to the anti-union South and Mexico. The Kohlers also had a national network of influential conservatives like Senator Barry Goldwater and right-wing corporate leaders who later supported them against the United Auto Workers in rolling back the gains made by working people.
The Kohler Corporation displayed its willingness to crush workers’ rights by any means necessary, with a 1934 massacre of strikers and supporters when two unarmed strikers were shot and killed by “special deputies” recruited by Kohler, with another 47 wounded—all shot from behind.
During the 1934 strike, both Walter Kohler, Sr. and company attorney Lyman Conger—also central in the 1954 strike—seemed like 19th century Charles Dickens caricatures of unrelenting mercilessness and contempt for the dignity and the lives of workers. But they were also shrewd enough to make minor concessions when forced by circumstances. Over the years, they tolerated the formation of a toothless union local, affiliated with the AFL-CIO, in order to gain government contracts during WWII. And in response to workers clamoring for a union after the war, they formed a company-dominated union called the Kohler Workers Association. But the Kohler “union” quickly lost legitimacy and, in 1952, workers voted to affiliate with the United Auto Workers. UAW Local 833 was determined to organize Kohler employees and managed to win a certified election in 1952.
In 1953, the fledgling union forced Kohler to sign a one-year contract, but in 1954, Kohler toughened its stance, spurning the union’s demands for a small wage increase, even when the union cut it in half, and rejecting out of hand the UAW’s insistence on retaining an arbitration system that would have provided the union with a measure of power in protecting and advancing the interests of their members.
The strike began with rallies of 4,000 strikers that energized UAW members and their families. One veteran of the strike recalled the union sponsoring “wives’ days” on picket lines and the women responded with a level of fervor that surprised many.
Central to the UAW’s strategy was the use of mass “belly-to-back” picketing which created an airtight wall of strikers around the Kohler plant, effectively blocking Kohler’s plans to bring in “scab” replacement workers. Some 2,800 of the company’s 3,300 employees joined the picket lines. The plant essentially ceased operations for two months. Herbert Kohler then resumed production with non-union labor. Six years of sporadic violence ensued between strikers and strike breakers. In time, the company would charge opponents with more than 1,000 acts of vandalism. At one point, more than 300 people were arrested. Calls for a national boycott of Kohler products were vociferous and sometimes effective. Strikers were able to continue their activities because of $12 million provided by the UAW. Herbert Kohler resisted all efforts to compromise, even rejecting a public appeal from his nephew, Governor Walter J. Kohler, Jr.
The company managed to win an injunction based on a court interpretation contending that such picketing tactics were coercive. Of course, this kind of ruling is unthinkable in virtually every other advanced democracy where the recruitment of replacement workers is banned outright because it directly negates the right to strike. “The Kohler strike reveals how much picket line militancy had declined in two decades,” Joe Burns argues in his book Reviving the Strike Back. Burns contends that this was a faulty strategy. “However, after only two months complying with a court injunction, the union stopped mass picketing, which allowed production to continue. By bringing the strike into the courts, Kohler was able to have the dispute judged on a more favorable terrain, as, by the mid-1950s, the legal system essentially prohibited…picket line activities, which allowed Kohler to fire the workers who engaged in the plant blockades. Most importantly, Kohler was able to change the narrative. Whereas in the 1930s, union members upheld the right to picket and derided those who attempted to break it up, by the 1950s, strikers using the very same tactics were treated as criminals. Thus, Kohler was able to reframe the issue as one of union violence, as opposed to the 1930s, when unions were generally portrayed as victims of employer attacks on peaceful picket lines. ”
The ban on mass picketing forced a fundamental shift in union strategy. While still maintaining a strong picket line presence, the UAW prioritized a major national campaign against Kohler products. While Kohler managed to attract a large number of “scab” replacement workers from outside Sheboy- gan, the company’s ability to produce bathroom fixtures was negated by a combination of the UAW’s outreach efforts to other unions and the actions of plumbers and building-trade union members who informally discouraged the installation of Kohler products. The plumbers’ behind-the-scenes actions, in particular, were able to effectively persuade builders from using Kohler’s wares. While such acts of solidarity against “hot cargo” were banned under the Taft- Hartley Act if formally and visibly undertaken, the plumbers’ actions were quiet, but immensely effective, and succeeded in avoiding legal sanctions.
The UAW fostered these efforts by following Kohler trucks to sites where the company planned to have its products installed. The union also reached out across the nation to promote actions supportive of the strike among unionists. Meanwhile, UAW strikers managed to sustain themselves and their families through a combination of UAW strike support and a relatively plentiful supply of available jobs within easy commuting distance. Still, families faced severe privations: “There were many, many days when we didn’t have a nickel in the house,” a striker’s wife told Walter Uphoff, author of the definitive history of the conflict, Kohler on Strike: 30 years of Conflict. The strike split the community: although roughly 70 percent of people in the area supported the strikers, according to former State Senator Cal Potter whose father was active in the strike, the conflict still pitted brother against brother. Some churches gave up holding summer social events because of the conflicts that broke out between strikers and the relative handful of scabs who had abandoned the strike.
ON THE DEFENSIVE
With the labor movement at its peak of membership (as a percentage of the workforce) and with considerable political clout, the union movement triggered a major backlash from corporations and the Right that put the movement on the defensive and led to anti-communist purges that severely divided and weakened it. Labor faced new legal restrictions in the Taft-Hartley Act enacted in 1947 which promoted anti-union “right to work” laws prohibiting unions from collecting dues from all workers who benefitted from union efforts to represent them and fight for their interests. The result was the consolidation of the former slave states of the South as an anti-union, low-wage bastion that served to pull down wages, union membership, and political power across the nation. Taft-Hartley also deprived labor of its right to act in solidarity with other unions, outlawing “secondary boycotts” directed against anti-union companies.
The UAW responded by assigning the experienced progressive Secretary-Treasurer Emil Mazey Janesville to assist in leading the strike. UAW President Walter Reuther proved to be a formidable adversary to Goldwater when Reuther testified to the anti-union McClellan Committee, strongly defending the union’s struggles for basic union rights at Kohler.
The union also adopted a communications strategy in which UAW Local 833 leaders spoke frequently to the press and issued a daily bulletin to keep members fully informed and able to maintain their sense of involvement. The union also staged imaginative, media-savvy events where dozens of members wore Abraham Lincoln outfits to illustrate that the union stood against the regime of slavery imposed by Kohler.
In 1960, the National Labor Relations Board decided against the Kohler Company, ruling that it had refused to bargain in good faith after the strike broke out. Herbert Kohler was ordered to reinstate 1,700 workers. It took lawsuits by both sides and two more years for management and labor to work out a contract, but the bitter issue of compensation for strikers remained unresolved. In December 1965, the Kohler Company agreed to pay $3 million in back wages to some 1,400 former employees and hand over $1.5 million in pension-fund contributions. The union agreed to make no further charges stemming from the strike. The longest major strike in American history had ended with a major union victory. However, since the triumph at Kohler, labor’s position deteriorated on several key fronts:
- Diminished labor strength, so that the union movement represented less than a fifth of the 35 percent share of the private sector workforce than it did in the mid-1950s when the Kohler strike was raging.
- The breakdown of the solidarity-based working class culture and communities. Long-developed traditions of struggling together to fight for more control over their lives had been crumbling under the effects of suburbanized living patterns and the devastation wrought by deindustrialization.
- The negation of the right to strike as U.S. labor laws, long the least protective of workers in any advanced nation, had been ruthlessly exploited by major corporations, resulting in the de facto loss of the right to strike without fear of disastrous results.
The ability of labor to raise wages and improve conditions, not only for their own members, but for the entire working class and much of the middle class, was clear during the Kohler strike and was reinforced by the UAW’s victory and other steps forward by labor. But capital had regained the economic and political ground it may have lost in the late 1960s and 1970s when capitalism was challenged both on an ideological level and by a variety of social movements, including rank and file labor insurgencies, significant wildcat strikes, a spate of factory occupations, and many visionary efforts to challenge management control as with the campaign by workers to buy up a steel mill on the verge of closing in Youngstown, Ohio.
In stark comparison, the present period is marked by a fatalism among many working people as incomes fall—despite Corporate America’s record profits—and highly profitable firms like General Electric, Boeing, and Caterpillar cut wages and send jobs overseas. The threat of relocating production in order to extort concessions from workers—although formally illegal, but almost never subject to punishment became a routine part of collective bargaining. Workers and their union leaders witnessed millions of jobs head offshore, while this kind of management strategy was barely used in the 1954 Kohler strike.
CLASS WAR CONTINUES
Over the past two decades dominant sectors of Corporate America have whittled labor’s strength from its high point of representing 35 percent of the workforce in the mid-1950s to currently 6.6 percent of the private-sector workforce. The labor culture and broad support on which the Kohler workers depended no longer has an extensive and powerful institutional foundation.
Perhaps one of the least-appreciated sources for the labor movement’s enduring strength has been the mutually reinforcing ties forged between working-class neighborhoods where workers resided and interacted socially and the factories that brought them together under common conditions of exploitation. The strong solidarity of the 1954 strike provided families with the determination to endure great privations.
Much of this solidarity can be ascribed to the overlap between workplace and community. With many streets populated mostly by Kohler strikers, those choosing to seek personal gain at the expense of the many became instantly and memorably unpopular. But in Sheboygan, since the strike, workers began to disperse throughout the area, resulting in a much lower sense of involvement in a common culture of labor and union solidarity. In many places, the culture of solidarity has been fractured by de-industrialization. As seen by Harvard public policy Professor Kathryn Eden, who examined neighborhoods in South Philadelphia, “These white working-class communities—once strong, vibrant, proud communities, often organized around big industries—they’re just in terrible straits. The social fabric of these places is just shredding. There’s little engagement in religious life and the old civic organizations that people used to belong to are fading. Drugs have ravaged these communities, along with divorce, alcoholism, violence.”
This unraveling of working-class communities is occurring wherever deindustrialization is taking place. “In the process of globalization, a culture that took 200 years to build was torn apart in 20,” British journalist Paul Mason ruefully states in Live Working or Die Fighting. “There is no point mourning it, but it is an unacknowledged and universal phenomenon everywhere organized labor and social cohesion was once strong. It’s as if there was is some kind of universal grief, unmentionable under therapy, over the death of the solidaristic, decent highly educated and aspirational lifestyle that was the badge of being working class during the post-war economic boom.”
Thanks to U.S. labor laws which are unique among advanced democracies, U.S. corporations have repeatedly demonstrated their willingness to discard veteran workers who dare to exercise their right to strike and, with the help of expensive consultants and costly logistical preparations, to permanently replace them with workers drawn from the huge reserve army of the unemployed. Union members have witnessed this again and again at firms like Phelps-Dodge, Greyhound, Hormel, International Paper, Eastern Airlines, Continental Airlines, International Paper, and Caterpillar. As a consequence, the number of post-war strikes involving 1,000 or more workers has fallen from a high of 470 in 1952 to as low as 5 in 2009 and 15 in 2013.
In the bulwarks of union strength in the Midwest, East, and Pacific Coast, most labor struggles until the late 1960s (with exceptions) occurred within confined settings where unions sought contracts from corporations seemingly rooted in the communities where they operated.
Kohler tried one exploratory attempt at undermining the 1954 strike by relocating production to its new plant in low-wage Spartanburg, South Carolina. But the capacity of the plant was far too small to generate enough production to influence the outcome of the struggle over a union in Sheboygan. However, Kohler eventually relocated a huge share of U.S. production outside the U.S. “About 50 percent of all U.S.-owned manufacturing production is now located in foreign countries and a significant part of our manufacturing job loss has been the result of U.S. firms exporting back to the U.S. or producing abroad what they once produced here,” according to economist Jeff Faux, author of The Global Class War and The Servant Economy. The consequences of this mass industrial exodus relocation are painfully visible in countless communities marked by ghostly factories or vacant lots, as the nation has witnessed the closing of some 56,190 factories since 2002, according to Donald L. Bartlett and James B. Steele in The Betrayal of The American Dream.
For its part, the Kohler Corporation pursued a strategy of reducing jobs in Sheboygan from about 3,000 to 1,800. “By the 1990’s, Kohler had a string of plumbing, furniture, and engine plants across the American South where right-to-work laws incentivize managers to apply pressure or promises to individual workers, thereby radically cutting potential union membership and driving down wages.” Historian Kathryn Oberdick notes that, “Kohler has since opened a second factory in Reynosa, Mexico, five factories in China, and, more recently, a plumbing products factory in Gujarat, India.”
This pattern of global sourcing gave the corporation considerable leverage in 2010 when it demanded that UAW members in Sheboygan accept a two-tier wage system. UAW Local 833, in line with its militant traditions, responded initially with a rally of 3,000 members, retirees, and community and labor supporters.
But in response to the UAW’s resistance, the company’s principal family owner, Herbert V. Kohler, declared in a letter to workers that the Sheboygan operations were not sustainable at current pay and benefit levels. “This location will continue to shrink” without the concessions demanded by Kohler. So the Kohler Corp. insisted on a three- tiered wage system, with current workers, averaging $22.54 an hour, accepting a five-year wage freeze and increased health-care contributions.
The union local’s bargaining committee recommended a “no” vote on the company proposal, but a majority of members—feeling anxiety about their jobs being relocated and accepted the company ’s demands.
New workers in “Tier B” would earn only 65 percent of the prevailing wage—or about $14.70 an hour, an amount pegged to the local manufacturing average, although Kohler is far larger than any area firm with $4.5 billion in annual sales. Clearly, the Kohler Corp. was aiming at eventually replacing the top-tier workers as they retired, with a workforce making 35 percent less and with fewer benefits. A third tier of “casual employees,” who would comprise as much as 25 percent of the workforce, would be paid at the 65 percent rate, with reduced benefits.
The lowest caste of “casuals” could work up to 25 percent of total hours in the plant under the company’s demands. They would receive $14.70, but no healthcare benefits, although they would become eligible for union membership.
While the trajectory of the workers’ situation at Kohler was clearly headed downward, Kohler’s owner Herbert Kohler Jr. had been enjoying an immense surge in his personal wealth. Since the privately-held corporation is not legally required to release profit figures since there are no stockholders, Kohler’s personal net worth is the best barometer of the Kohler Corporation’s situation. Kohler suffered a dip in his personal wealth from $3 billion in 2009 to $2 billion in 2010 with a slump in housing—and the plumbing products associated with it—resulting from the Wall Street meltdown. By 2012, Kohler and his family’s wealth eventually reaching $6.3 billion, according to Forbes magazine’s list of the richest Americans.
In 2006, the Wall Street Journal described Kohler’s investments—like the purchase of the world-famous birthplace of golf in St. Andrews Scotland—as “vanity projects” aimed at “golf-bewitched billionaires.”
Due to the efforts of labor—which grew from near-extinction in the 1920s to a massive movement representing over one-third of American workers in the 1950s—the living standards of U.S. workers rose sharply, simultaneously increased ing pay and benefits for a growing middle class in the 1930s, and used the power of disruptive sit-down strikes to consolidate unions’ role as the voice of workers. The sit-down strikes also posed an especially threatening role, implicitly calling into question the need for direction by ruthless, authoritarian management. If workers were capable of taking over a factory, it would be a short step to running it without the commands of capitalists.
In response, Corporate America launched a sustained public-relations and propaganda attack labor unions and New Deal and World War II-era programs that increased workers’ economic security and held the promise of threatened it with more government economic planning came under a sustained attack throughout this period, as Elizabeth Fines-Wolf describes in The Selling of Free Enterprise.
In contrast to the post-war period of increasing economic equality and workers’ growing political power, an ongoing corporate-driven class war has left us with current era income and wealth were now so monopolized by the richest 1 percent that the U.S. has returned to the level of inequality characterized by the Gilded Age 90 years ago, even surpassing the inequality found in numerous Third World nations, according to the CIA Annual Yearbook. Between 2009 and 2012, 95 percent of income gains were vacuumed up by the top 1 percent.
Based on these trends and seeing no miraculously revived labor movement rushing to the rescue, it is likely that we will continue to see new levels of misery across the nation. “All things considered, economic and social pain is likely to deepen and persist,” warns. But as economic and political conditions continue to worsen, economist Gar Alperovitz states in What Then Must We Do?. But this tightening vise on workers’ lives, he asserts, is “they are “ likely to produce precisely the kinds of conditions that, as we have seen, have been critical drivers for various forms of democratization—of ownership, of wealth, and institutions. The challenge is to develop a system-changing strategy that can not only end the downward spiral, but build forward on such possibilities and give rise to something different, something entirely American.”
Building on the potential for a volcano of public anger likely to erupt in the near future, labor must make fundamental changes to help in directing a vast outpouring of public discontent and energy. To do so, we must shake the complacency of many union leaders who are wedded to cautious and conventional strategies.
To rebuild America along the lines of greater equality in living standards and a participatory economic democracy, fundamental changes are imperative for a labor movement which has for too long rested on vague hopes of legislative protections produced by an exclusive reliance on the Democratic Party.
The union movement must abandon the old labor leader Samuel Gompers’s uninspiring, narrow credo of simply wanting “more” and, instead, establish labor as a force with a moral vision for America, one of economic rights providing human dignity to all dignified life coupled with a voice in a genuine political democracy. It was the moral stance of UAW Local 833 against industrial feudalism that inspired union members and ignited support across the nation and won such a protracted struggle .
Moving forward will also require a new focus on local activism that shows the fighting spirit of labor—as in the Wisconsin labor rebellion of 2011. This will mean channeling undirected fury over falling incomes, and inequality, and insecurity—so widely visible with the Occupy movement—into specific local protests challenging plant relocations, wage cuts, home foreclosures, and other assaults by Corporate America with the same kind of disruptive strategies employed by the sit-down strikers of the 1930s, UAW Local 833 at Kohler, and the Occupy movement.
Roger Bybee is a Milwaukee-based freelance writer. This article is, in part, an expanded version of a Bybee’s keynote address to the Wisconsin Labor History Society, May 2014.