Historic Kohler strikes and future of labor topics of May conference; 33rd Annual Wisconsin Labor History Society set for May 17 in Sheboygan
The historic three decades of struggles that workers faced at Wisconsin’s Kohler Co. to win decent working conditions will be reviewed – along with their relevance for today’s economy – at the 33rd Annual Conference of the Wisconsin Labor History Society to be held Saturday, May 17 in Sheboygan.
Entitled “The Kohler Strikes – Three Decades of Struggle: What Can Labor Learn? What Works Today?” the all-day conference will be held at Emil Mazey Hall, 5425 Superior Ave., Sheboygan, home of United Auto Workers Local 833 which represents workers at the company in nearby Kohler.
Roger Bybee, of Milwaukee, a prominent columnist and editor of the former Racine Labor newspaper, will lead off the conference, tracing the history of the Local 833 efforts to win a contract and decent working conditions. Two strikes marked the struggle, one in 1934 for recognition, and the other that lasted from 1954 until 1964 making it the longest strike in U. S. history.
Three participants from the last strike – former Local 833 President Charles Conrardy and Gordy Billmann and Julius Siech – and former State Senator Cal Potter will relate experiences as part of a panel that will examine how the strikes affected the community and the workers involved. Current Local 833 President Dave Boucher will discuss the local’s situation today.
Looking at how unions can move ahead in today’s difficult economy will be Karen Lewis, president of the Chicago Teachers Union, and Joe Burns, author, labor attorney and union representative.
Lewis led the Chicago Teachers in their community-wide strike in September 2012, fighting back management demands for an unfair teacher evaluation system, halting the merit pay proposal and ensuring protections for teachers in phased out schools. Having put in 22 years as a high school chemistry teacher, Lewis led a grassroots effort to become head of the union.
Burns, author of Reviving the Strike: How Working People Can Regain Power and Transform America, argues that workers will need to rediscover the power of the strike. Not the ineffectual strike of today, where employees meekly sit on picket lines waiting for scabs to take their jobs, but the type of strike capable of grinding industries to a halt—the kind employed up until the 1960s.
An open discussion will follow the presentations of Lewis and Burns.
Lunch will be served and the Society will present its annual awards to high school students for their essays on labor history, college and graduate students for their research and a “Solidarity Award” to an individual for lifetime achievement to workers, unions and the community.
Established in 1981, the Society is an affiliate of the Wisconsin Historical Society and is supported by the Wisconsin State AFL-CIO and many local unions and labor councils in Wisconsin.
Full information on registering for the conference is available at the WLHS website (http://wisconsinlaborhistory.org). Unionists, teachers, students, historians and all interested persons are welcome.
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