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The Kohler Strike’s Struck

On the heels of Jeremy Peppas’ Arkansas Democrat-Gazette report on the looming one-year anniversary of the strike by Kohler workers in Searcy, the Daily Citizen says that the strike’s off:

“I’m not sure if we have any documentary evidence of it, but it’s my understanding the union made an unconditional offer to return to work,” [Regional 26 Director of the National Labor Relations Board Ronald K.] Hooks said. “In that sense I guess the union is taking the position that, ‘We’re calling off the strike and we want to return to work.’”

Union and company officials aren’t talking to the media yet, but if Hooks is right, then the union has lost. An unconditional return means the union can’t even demand its jobs back, especially if the company has hired scabs to replace the union employees.

So, what happened? It was clear months ago that the strike was going nowhere good. Nothing was more ominous than the fact that there were no reports from the picket lines. There were no negotiations taking place, and the company was asserting that it had no desire to reopen negotiations. The union’s demands weren’t beyond-the-pale—they tried to stave off the insertion of a company honor code written into their contracts; they were combating efforts by management to chip away at their benefits and real wages—but they were perhaps rigid where they should have bent. For example, the honor code was already company policy. I would be dubious about making my employment contingent upon agreeing to it, but I would certainly have spoken with other Locals and checked other contracts before making a stand on it; or, because it was already policy, I would have seen it as a point compromise. Meanwhile, UAW Local 833 in Sheboygan, Wisconsin, whose members were very interested in the Searcy strike, successfully renegotiated its three-year contract with Kohler. It gained modest wage increases and took some benefit hits. (Coincidentally, the longest strike in U.S. Labor history—nine years—took place when UAW Local 833 walked out in 1954. The NLRB ruled against the company in 1960 and again in 1965. A pamphlet from that strike is available from the Wisconsin Historical Scoiety.) I’m sure that Kohler’s refusal to negotiate with Local 1000 made them more apt to settle early. Just as likely, Local 833’s willingness to settle probably was the psychological end to the strike in Searcy. It would have represented not so much a breakdown of solidarity, but certainly a breakdown in the hope for solidarity that Local 1000 surely held. When no one seems to be with you in your fight, why fight?

Meanwhile, I do hope Kohler will do right by its returning employees by allowing them to return.



I think KTHV may be casting more doubt than really exists here, but they’re saying the strike’s still on. (It may be a question of the unconditional return.)