The Kohler Strikes at the Kohler Company, just west of Sheboygan, Wisconsin in 1934 and 1954 are landmarks in the history of both business and labor in the United States. Labor leaders have often cited the warfare at the giant plumbing supply company in their contention that workers need unions. Industrial leaders have pointed to the strikes as examples of union belligerence and indifference toward the true welfare of their employees.
Strike of 1934
The Kohler Company was founded in Sheboygan, Wisconsin in 1873, when John Michael Kohler II (1844–1900) took over his father-in-law's steel and iron factory. During the late 19th century it prospered as the producer of plumbing products and enamelware. In 1912, land around a new factory just west of Sheboygan became the Village of Kohler, Wisconsin. From 1905 until his death, John Michael's son Walter J. Kohler, Sr. (1875–1940) led the highly successful business. In the early 1920s, he built a family mansion, Riverbend, and was welcomed in high society in Chicago and elsewhere. In 1928, he became Governor of Wisconsin for a single term.
Walter was a benevolent employer. He developed attractive and affordable housing in the Village for workers, built a handsome facility for newly arrived immigrants, paid above average wages, and provided safety measures and medical care in the plant. The Village of Kohler attracted national attention as a model of what enlightened employers could do for their workers.
In the Great Depression, however, company profits plummeted. Despite lengthy efforts by Kohler to keep people employed, many blamed management for their shrinking income. The American Federation of Labor turned its attention on the Company in the spring of 1934, demanding that the AFL replace the company union, the Kohler Workers Association, formed a year earlier and enrolling 1,600 workers. In June, AFL leaders called for a 62.5% wage increase and a 25% reduction in hours. At the heart of the matter was the AFL's demand to be the sole bargaining unit at the company. Walter strongly opposed this bid for power and closed the plant. On July 16, a strike began.
Violence quickly erupted and the entire Village was closed to traffic. Special deputies hired by the company clashed with pickets, and huge crowds began to assemble. On July 27, in response to vandalism against company property, the special deputies attacked with guns and tear gas. Bullets were fired on both sides, and hurled bricks and rocks added to the turmoil. Early the next day, two men were dead, and 43 others were injured. On July 29, in response to appeals by Walter and the local sheriff, 250 members of the National Guard were on the scene, and peace was restored. Walter, who had been trapped in the main office building for 12 days, blamed the violence on outsiders and people with "communistic affiliations." Only 17 of the 49 wounded were employees or former company employees.
In September, the National Labor Relations Board ruled against the Kohler Company and demanded a secret, supervised elections at the plant to determine who would represent the workers. The company union, the Kohler Workers' Association, won easily. The Kohler victory was short-lived, however, for in 1935 the US Supreme Court declared the National Industrial Recovery Act unconstitutional. Walter had formed his company union in compliance with this law, as he had understood it. Congress soon, however, passed the Wagner Act, giving organized labor the right to organize and bargain collectively without employer interference. A majority of workers could now determine who would represent them; this "union shop" was the chief goal of the AFL. Still, the company union and the principle of "open shop" remained in effect at the Kohler Company until 1952, when the United Auto Workers (UAW) won an election.
Strike of 1954
During the Second World War, Herbert V. Kohler, Sr. (1891–1968) gained control of the Kohler Company. He was a physically and mentally powerful man best known for his supreme self-confidence and iron will. He had played a key role in the strike of 1934 and was a staunch opponent of organized labor. He paid employees well, as had his half-brother, Walter J. Kohler, Sr., and he expected loyalty and hard work in return.
The UAW Local 833 was determined to organize Kohler employees, and it won a certified election in 1952. Herbert V. Kohler refused to grant union demands during contract negotiations, and a strike began on April 5, 1954. Some 2,800 of the Company's 3,300 employees joined the picket lines. The plant essentially ceased operations for two months. Herbert 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 a thousand 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 often violent activities because of some $12 million provided by the UAW. Herbert resisted all efforts to compromise, even sharply rejecting a public appeal from his nephew, Governor Walter J. Kohler, Jr..
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 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. 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.
After Herbert's death, his son Herbert V. Kohler, Jr. (1939-) headed the family-owned company and took a more positive approach to labor relations. In 2002, for example, a five-year labor contract was signed that left union negotiators quite pleased. In all, it seems doubtful that either Kohler strike had a lasting negative impact on the now-flourishing and expanded corporation. But the often bloody struggle scarred thousands of lives throughout the Sheboygan-Kohler area and elsewhere for more than three decades.
- Thomas C. Reeves, Distinguished Service: The Life of WisconsinGovernor Walter J. Kohler, Jr. (Marquette University Press, 2006)
- Walter H. Uphoff, Kohler on Strike: Thirty Years of Conflict (Beacon Press, 1966)
- Richard E. Blodgett, A Sense of Higher Design: The Kohlers of Kohler (Greenwich Publishing Group, 2003)
- Sylvester Petro, The Kohler Strike: Union Violence and Administrative Law (Regnery, 1961)
- ""All my life my Daddy's been on Strike to make my future better:" The Kohler Worker's Story - Wisconsin Historical Society". Wisconsinhistory.org. 1954-04-05. Retrieved 2012-05-22.