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JEREMY HOBSON: Union leaders in Wisconsin are worried that companies are taking advantage of the down economy and forcing blue collar workers to accept lower wages permanently. Over the past year or so, a few major companies have threatened to relocate jobs outside of Wisconsin if employees don’t agree to major concessions.
From WUWM in Milwaukee, LaToya Dennis has more.
LATOYA DENNIS: Kohler, Wisconsin is a small village that’s home to a big company that bears its name. Kohler makes kitchen and bathroom fixtures. This year, it became the third Wisconsin company to threaten to leave if union members didn’t rework their contract. In the end, Kohler employees accepted a deal to freeze their wages and pay more for healthcare. Employees also agreed to a two-tier pay system in which new employees cannot join the union, and will make 35 percent less than their counterparts.
DAVE BOUCHER: The concessions are unwarranted, unreasonable and overly severe.
Dave Boucher is an officer with the local union representing Kohler employees.
BOUCHER: The question was asked earlier if our members will be able to survive with this contract. Yes, our members can, at least the majority of them. But most certainly working as a temporary member of the workforce at 65 percent of the wage, with no benefits, those people are going to have a very hard time supporting their family.
Within the past year and a half, employees at both Mercury Marine and Harley-Davidson agreed to similar deals. Paul Kardish is Kohler’s senior staff attorney for labor relations. He says it all boils down to reducing pay and benefits to keep the company afloat.
PAUL KARDISH: We’re paying what we think are appropriate wages and what we’re trying to do again is just sort of reset the wage structure so that we again can ensure viability of operations here in Sheboygan County.
Kardish says employee wages had simply become too high for the company, in comparison with other jobs in the area. Still, for mayors in cities where people are taking wage cuts these concessions are tough. Tom Barrett is the mayor of Milwaukee where Harley-Davidson is based.
TOM BARRETT: They’re such well respected companies, you want them to thrive. But you also want the people who work there to have jobs where they can support their families. And that’s where things get tougher with the concessions that have been made.
Barrett says right now, employers have the upper hand.
In Milwaukee, I’m LaToya Dennis for Marketplace.
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