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Strike At Kohler Company Not The Norm These Days, Yet The Issues Are

There are not nearly as many strikes these days versus years ago, but a big one is playing out in Sheboygan. Hundreds of UAW members have been picketing the Kohler Company, while contract talks have stalled. The union reportedly wants Kohler to abandon the two-tier wage system it enacted years ago. Cheryl Maranto says the outcome will be telling, because unions don't wield nearly as much clout as they did years ago.

Maranto, an associate professor of management at Marquette University, says several factors have contributed to unions' decline in strength and number. She cites competition from non-union plants in the south and globalization.

"Technologies have increased the ability to have production done off-shore, and those tend to be places where labor costs are so much lower. As long as there isn’t a major skill component to the work, it is often cost-effective to ship those job overseas," Maranto says.

In addition, Maranto says, while U.S. labor laws have not changed much, the interpretation of those laws by the NLRB and the Supreme Court have become much more friendly to management.

"For example, there was a time when the ability to replace striking workers with other workers during the course of a strike were very, very limited. Now that is often a fairly routine thing," Maranto says.

Regarding the contract dispute between the UAW and the Kohler Company, Maranto says it will be interesting to learn how the company will respond, and whether or not it will try to replace the strikers.

"I know they already have a lot of off-shore manufacturing. To the extent they have kept the jobs that really do require skill, and where it’s beneficial for them to be close, the union would have more bargaining power in that situation," Maranto says.

Maranto says less-skilled workers, in an economy with fewer decent-paying manufacturing jobs, might think twice about continuing the walkout, as might the most well-seasoned employees.

"If you know that if these jobs leave your area your alternatives are way less good, it is definitely going to reduce the willingness of workers to stay out on strike.

"I understand that 93% of workers in the bargaining union voted to strike, and it’s full time employees, longer-seniority employees who are really striking, on behalf of the second-tier wage workers. You could argue that’s a pretty generous thing to do. It’ll be interesting to see how long they’re willing to put their own jobs on the line," Maranto says.