AP Photo/Greg Moore
“Five years ago we agreed to a wage freeze for the length of the contract and increases in payments for health care,” said Local 833 President Tim Tayloe in a Nov. 17 interview at the union hall. “Our health care out-of-pocket expenses have gone up 720 percent since then.”
The unionists want to end the two-tier structure they were pressured to accept in 2010. Some 1,600 Tier A workers now average $21 to $22 an hour, while more recently hired Tier B employees earn an average of $12.50 to $13 an hour.
Kohler rejected ending the two-tier setup. The bosses offered Tier A workers a 50 cents an hour raise each year in a three-year contract. Tier B workers would get an immediate raise averaging 20 percent, with 40-cent raises the next two years, leaving their wages below $17 an hour.
The bosses’ proposal would raise health care costs again, supposedly offset by a $1,200 signing bonus.
“Those guys are making $11 an hour and less to do the same work we do,” said Glenn Billings, a Tier A worker, speaking about Tier B on the picket line. “It’s not right. That’s why 94 percent voted against the company’s proposal.”
Kohler has 32,000 employees worldwide and annual revenue close to $6 billion. In addition to plumbing fixtures it produces engines, power generation systems and furniture, and manages golf clubs and resort hotels.
Local 833 represents about 2,100 workers at a plumbing-ware factory in Kohler and a generator plant north of Sheboygan. Some 1,800 unionists attended the meeting where the contract was discussed and voted overwhelmingly in favor of a strike.
The union hall is abuzz, with people making picket signs, organizing a shuttle to and from the picket line, and doing other strike-related tasks. Tayloe said only six workers have crossed the picket line.
“Kohler claims we’re misleading people, but we’re not, they are,” he said. “They claim that they are raising the wages of workers in Tier B 20 percent, but the proposal really only applies to certain Tier B workers.
“People can’t live on those wages. One guy who’s walking the picket line with us is living in his car. We didn’t know about it before, but now we do and we’re getting him a place to stay.”
A county circuit court judge issued a temporary injunction Nov. 17 ordering strikers not to block traffic.
UAW members at the Big Three automakers — Fiat Chrysler, Ford and General Motors — also have been campaigning to end lower-paid categories of workers. The new four-year Chrysler contract projects eliminating the gap between the first and second tier over eight years, but worsens the terms for the third tier, temporary part-time workers.
Ford workers have begun voting on a similar contract. As of Nov. 18 just over half of those voting had rejected the deal.
UAW officials have postponed ratification of the GM contract, passed by 58 percent, to address the opposition of nearly 60 percent of skilled trade workers.
Maggie Trowe contributed to this article.
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On the Picket Line
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