Striking Developments

This past week, I was given the opportunity to work on another fascinating assignment with the New York Times and reporter Julie Bosman in covering the on-going strike between management and employees of the Kohler company outside Sheboygan, Wisconsin.

KOHLER, WI — DECEMBER 9, 2015: Jeff Radtke, a 28 year veteran in the Kohler Pottery department looks down the picket line outside the Kohler facility, Tuesday, December 8, 2015.

I was able to spend the better part of a day walking along the picket line, capturing the scene and learning more about their stories, motivations, and emotions.

Most of all, perhaps, I was struck by the particular demographic most common amongst the strikers:

28 years of work at Kohler. 36 years of work at Kohler. 42 years of work at Kohler.

These were employees that had truly dedicated their lives to the company. More interesting still is the fact that the proposed changes to the Kohler pay scale — one of the root causes for the strike— affects a proportionally small minority of these veteran employees.

KOHLER, WI — DECEMBER 9, 2015: UAW Local 833 employees strike outside the Kohler manufacturing facility, Tuesday, December 8, 2015. Around 2,100 Kohler employees and union members are currently maintaining a 24/7 picket line outside the plant.

Worker after worker Julie and I spoke to reiterated similar points: We’re doing this for the ones just starting out, the youngest ones at the company, the ones hit the hardest, and the ones with the least means to weather the change.

KOHLER, WI — DECEMBER 9, 2015: Dale Mand, a Kohler employee of 43 years in the Engine plant, looks on at other Local UAW 833 strikers outside the Kohler facility, Tuesday, December 8, 2015. Around 2,100 Kohler employees and union members are currently maintaining a 24/7 picket line outside the plant.

The level of camaraderie and support from one employee to another at Kohler truly was a sight to behold. Sounds like the ball is in your court, Kohler.

SOMETHING IS ROTTEN IN THE STATE OF WISCONSIN

Well, what an interesting couple of weeks it’s been here in Madison…

It all kicked off after a “drafting error” showed the true intentions of Governor Scott Walker — instituting massive budget cuts of $300M to the University of Wisconsin system over the next two years. Needless to say, students, professors and community members were less than thrilled. A systematic dismantling of the UW System and “Wisconsin Idea” prompted numerous on-campus Q&A sessions and rallies in opposition to the proposed budget.

Unrest only grew this week.

Mere days after the proposed cuts were made public did more unexpected news arrive. Despite earlier claims that it would be a “distraction,” Wisconsin legislators announced their plan to make Wisconsin the 25th “right-to-work” state, another attempt to reduce the influence of unions only a few short years after Wisconsin Act 10 was passed, breaking down the rights of public sector unions and collective bargaining power.

As a fairly new resident to Wisconsin, I’m utterly struck by the complete and utter disconnect between our politicians and the people they purport to represent. Is it a fundamental issue of constituents voting against their own best interests? An uninformed electorate? A continuous cycle of politicians who promise to do one thing, then do the opposite? I honestly don’t know.

MADISON, WI — FEBRUARY 24: Employees inside the Wisconsin State Capitol show a message of support and solidarity from their window looking over the worker and labor union opposition rally just outside. Workers and labor unions rallied in opposition to a right-to-work bill being discussed in the state legislature. 

And as I look across the border to my home state of Minnesota, I wonder how those running Wisconsin can honestly see our neighbor’s successes yet denounce their methods.

(And just a pro tip here, it’s likely not in your best interests to compare your constituency to a murderous and barbaric terrorist organization…)

Obviously, I’m exceptionally grateful to have this amazing chance to cover what’s happening in (what’s now) my state for the New York Times recently. I just wish I had better news and more human stories to be reporting — not a divided populace, disingenuous governing body, and a stumbling economy.