Socialist Worker

Wisconsin's radical history

Issue No. 2241

Wisconsin was the site of crucial battles in the 1930s and 1950s. It was the first state to win collective bargaining rights for workers in 1959. In 1934 strikes at the Kohler Company—a huge plumbing supply firm—shook the state.

The American Federation of Labor called for a 62.4 percent pay rise and slashing of workers’ hours by a quarter. The union demanded to be the sole bargaining unit at the company.

The owners shut the plant, meaning a strike began on 16 July. Private security thugs attacked strikers with tear gas, guns and beatings. The workers fought back. The boss, Walter Kohler, was trapped in the offices for 12 days. Strikers won a partial victory but later had their rights to organise overturned.

In 1952, the United Auto Workers (UAW) union had won a vote to represent all the workers. Herbert V Kohler refused to recognise the demands and 3,000 workers struck on 5 April 1954. They shut the plant down for over two months.

For six years workers and scabs fought it out at the factory gates.

The dispute didn’t officially end until 1965 when the company agreed to pay back $3 million in wages and $1.5 million in pension contributions.


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