- Associated Press - Wednesday, December 16, 2015

KOHLER, Wis. (AP) - Union workers at the Kohler Co. overwhelmingly approved a new contract Wednesday, ending a monthlong strike and the first walkout at the Wisconsin manufacturer in more than 30 years.

Union officials said the tentative agreement announced Tuesday was supported by 91 percent of the 1,846 employees who voted. Workers will return to their jobs Thursday morning.

Bill Prening, 59, of Plymouth, a Kohler employee for 29 years, called it “a good contract.”

“Everybody gets a raise. We’re getting a bonus. Our health care (costs) went down” from the company’s earlier offer, Prening told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.

The strike - the company’s first since 1983 - began Nov. 15 at the privately-held maker of plumbing products, cabinets, furniture and other items.

CEO David Kohler said the company was pleased that union workers had ratified the contact.

“Kohler Co. maintains a competitive wage structure that is essential for our Wisconsin facility to grow jobs going forward. Most important, we welcome our associates back to work, where together, we will continue to work hard to exceed our customers’ expectations,” Kohler said in a statement Wednesday night.

Under the agreement, employees would get wage increases in each year of the four-year contract, according to union leaders who represent about 2,000 workers at Kohler’s kitchen and bath plant in the village of the same name and at a generator factory north of Sheboygan.

The workers are members of United Auto Workers Local 833.

“We worked very hard to reach an agreement that addresses all of the key areas crucial to the future of our members,” said UAW Local 833 President Tim Tayloe. “The agreement significantly brings one tier associate pay closer to the other, while also providing substantial wage increases in each year of the contract. All benefits have been enhanced and the modifications to the health care plans have reduced the potential for increased out-of-pocket costs to our membership.”

The two-tiered pay scale was a sticking point in negotiations. The union said it unfairly limited new employees to roughly $13 an hour. CEO Kohler warned that without the two-tiered system, local manufacturing jobs would likely disappear.

Kohler, who is also president of the company, said the tentative agreement recognizes the contributions of the workers in making the company more competitive in the future.

“The common ground that we share is more important than any differences we may have - and this agreement reflects that,” he said in a statement Tuesday.

Kohler has more than 30,000 employees worldwide in businesses that range from kitchen and bath products to resorts and real estate.

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