Union Power


 “He who toils here hath set his mark,” says a motto carved into a large medallion at one of the many entrances to the vast Kohler corporate headquarters and manufactory in Kohler, Wisconsin. Our offer to bring a lighted message to the picket was readily received by UAW Local 833 Union President, Tim Tayloe, and judging by the warm welcome at the union hall, many of the rank & file were ready to “fight with light” with the Overpass Light Brigade. The workers expressed their conviction for a walkout last Monday, November 16, with a 94% vote to go on strike.


We understand that these are not easy votes, that people don’t give up a certain salary that keeps themselves and their families solvent through the seasons without extreme duress and due cause. In this case, this issue is a “two tiered pay structure” that was set in place a few years back during the economic downturn. Workers who were covered under previous contracts were grandfathered in at a pay rate twice what newer workers would make. The sacrifice for the Gods of Austerity was a real one, and workers pitched in to do their part. Since that time, however, sales have become quite robust, and management has seen great profit. It was time to revisit the tiered system of pay, but institutionalizing low wages for new workers is too advantageous for the owners to give up. This is not only the reigning logic of austerity, leaving future workers with less and less, but it creates a situation where current employees doing the same jobs side by side have to live with a divisive and dispiriting inequity. Reclusive billionaires seem to love the money that workers generate, but hate the power that unions represent. Company owner Herbie Kohler has seen his wealth triple in the last 7 years, while employees in either salary tier haven’t had a raise in that same time. It is a common story, often told.


We expected a long picket line down some main street of Kohler, but instead found the workers spread in clusters in shacks strategically located at entrances, exits and thoroughfares.  It is a bucolic setting, full of charming buildings that make one nostalgic for a bygone era. The whole place is seeped in and odd Twilight Zone Americana built on the excellence of expensive, and excellent, plumbing products. Two UAW vans had loaded up our lights, and drove us from picket to picket, where we would organize our message for groups of enthused workers while cars passed by, honking their support in modest beeps, since the police were issuing hefty tickets for overzealous noise making. It appeared that everyone around stands in support of the workers. Local eateries were bringing hot rolls and barbecue sandwiches, local unions had delivered firewood and water, burn barrels crackled with hardwood fires, and local residents were present at the picket lines. The mood was upbeat to say the least.



But there was a sober undertone to all of the  conversations that we had during the multiple Light Brigade actions of the night. Shanty shacks have been erected, with the creativity and skill derived from people who know how to build things. We marveled at the cozy, fort-like accommodations of Strike Club 833, from under-cabinet storage, to desk, to outside illuminated letters spelling UAW, to a paper-towel dispenser and hideous shag carpet underfoot. There was conversation about how long the structure could stay, or whether it would need to be moved. Does it violate zoning? Other ordinances? Is it too close to the county highway, or does it straddle private land? As with the Occupy Movement, we observe that the right to public assembly can only be assured when there are actual public spaces on which to assemble. Otherwise, it is a sham.


The piles of firewood, shacks, shanties, tarps and burn barrels are evidence that the strikers know it will be a long haul. There is a resonant history of labor actions at Kohler, and it is the tough history of hard-fought battles. But these are Wisconsin workers, men and women who spend leisure time in ice-shacks on frozen lakes, who go to sports events held on a field known as “the Frozen Tundra,” and who would be hitting the hills and woods today for deer hunting season; sitting in some blind up in a tree, or walking through swamps in camo. Instead, they are hunkered down here, in Kohler, settling into a hard time in order to get to better times. These are men and women who know how to wait in the cold and tough it out. They also happen to be highly skilled workers, not readily replaceable, who are demanding fair treatment for their efforts, and in doing so, are reinvigorating the whole notion of a labor union.


Written by: Lane Hall
Photos: Joe Brusky