Labor Briefing: Kohler strike ends

By BILL ONASCH

• 2000 UAW Kohler plumbing fixture workers in Sheboygan County, Wis., returned to work the week before Christmas after a 32-day strike. It was marked by strong solidarity among unions and in the community. Although less than 20 percent of the membership would have benefited, the biggest issue was the union’s push to eliminate a divisive two-tier wage structure that had been reluctantly agreed to five years ago when new construction had bottomed out. The union failed to win that objective but did substantially narrow the gap.

Tier B gets a hefty $4.70 an hour in raises over four years. Most Tier A workers will get $2 raises. There were improvements in pensions and relatively little “cost sharing” for health benefits. At a hastily called meeting, 1,847 workers ratified the agreement with a 91 percent “yes” vote. Though Wisconsin is an open-shop “right-to-work” state, only 22 scabs crossed the line.

• Also shortly before the holidays, the United Steelworkers announced a tentative agreement for 18,000 workers at US Steel—though no details have been revealed at our deadline. Some 13,000 USW members at Arcelor Mittal continue to work under conditions of a contract that expired in June while negotiating for a new agreement.

In the other major national steel negotiations, Allegheny Technologies Inc. has locked out 2200 workers in six states as they go for draconian takebacks. These include pension cutbacks for present workers and freezing new hires out of the pension plan. Health insurance would go from zero out of pocket expense to a $215 a month premium and a $400 annual deductible. And ATI demanded the right to fill vacancies through attrition with outside contractors that would be excluded from the bargaining unit.

The company has brought in professional strikebreakers to partially run their specialty metals production, along with management employees. On Dec. 18, the Pittsburgh regional office of the National Labor Relations Board upheld union Unfair Labor Practice charges of bad faith bargaining. Unless overturned on appeal, this means scabs could not permanently replace locked-out workers. It also entitles workers to eligibility for unemployment benefits in all six states.

• After going 10 years without a raise, adjunct faculty at Hamline University in St. Paul voted in June 2014 to be represented by Service Employees International Union Local 284. Nearly 18 months later, they have a tentative agreement for a first contract. Highlights reported on the Workday Minnesota website include raises for all, with the majority getting a bump of 15 percent for the spring semester. Base pay will increase 20 percent in the 2017-18 fiscal year. There’s additional compensation for longevity and curriculum development.

• Also from Workday Minnesota, datelined Dec. 21: “Hundreds of janitors and security officers who clean and protect buildings throughout the Twin Cities and their supporters marched through Minneapolis skyways Monday to ramp up their campaign for a fair contract that begins to close racial and economic disparities.” The workers are represented by SEIU Local 26.

• At our deadline, AFSCME clerical workers at the University of Minnesota were voting on a tentative agreement retroactive to June 2015 that would provide two annual general wage increases of 1.5 percent, no changes in health insurance, six weeks of paid leave for birth mothers, and a $15 minimum wage.

• Registration is now open for the biennial Labor Notes Conference being held in Chicago, April 1-3. The last conference in 2014 attracted over 2000 labor activists from around the country—and the world. Information is available at labornotes.org/conference.

Photo: Sheboygan Press.