February 28, 2011- Washington – This is not the first time that Wisconsin has been at the center of national agitation over the role of unions.
The earlier battle was staged in Sheboygan at Kohler, the legendary manufacturer of kitchen, bath and furniture products. The employees at Kohler had voted to join the United Auto Workers union, and a strike that began in April 1954 was not settled until the early 1960s.
In taking on the unions — as the historian Kim Phillips-Fein recounts in "Invisible Hands: The Businessmen's Crusade Against the New Deal" — Herbert Kohler, the president of the family company, became a hero to small manufacturers around the country.
"Who runs this country?" Kohler would ask appreciative anti-union audiences. "That is the basic issue at Kohler. That is the potential question for ALL industry. We must meet this issue fighting."
There is an interesting coda to this story. This past December, as the Green Bay Press-Gazette reported, the members of UAW Local 833 voted 1,152 to 717 to endorse a contract at Kohler that included a five-year wage freeze, higher health care premiums and the creation of a two-tiered wage and benefit system.
UAW leaders opposed the deal, but were not surprised by the result. "People are under duress," Dave Bergene, the local UAW president, told the Press-Gazette. "The economy is really bad, and I'm sure that played into part of it."
That is the background for the confrontation going on now between Wisconsin Republican Gov. Scott Walker and the state's public-employee unions. Private-sector workers are taking it on the chin, and conservatives now see a chance to cripple organized labor altogether by killing off public-sector unions, the most vibrant part of the movement. The underlying argument is actually insidious: If workers in the private sector have it bad, shouldn't workers in the public sector have it bad, too?
"The game goes like this," as one pro-union political consultant I spoke with put it. "Destroy private-sector unions, reduce private-sector health and retirement benefits, then say 'Hey, how come those public employees get such (relatively) good benefits? That's not fair.'" He scoffed at those now insisting that they like private but not public-sector unions: "Private-sector unions are only 'OK' once they are completely emasculated."