Members have been shot, killed fighting for justice in the workplace
The Kohler strikers of 2015 honored those who came before them with their grit and determination. The history of standing up and fighting for your brothers and sisters runs long and proud in the village that bears the company’s name and the nearby city of Sheboygan, Wisconsin.
In 1934, workers sought to shed their company union and affiliate with the AFL. The company desperately fought this. On July 26-27 of that year, more than 40 strikers were attacked, with many being shot in the back by “special” deputies on the Kohler payroll. Lee Wakefield, 25, and Henry Engleman, 27, were killed, murders that to this day are unsolved.
Kohler retiree Dave Billmann has lived the history of strikes at Kohler Company. He’s researched the history of the 1934-41 strike and led an effort to make sure the headstones of brothers Wakefield and Engleman are tended to and have flowers.
“Younger members should realize that these guys, not that they put their lives on the line, that they lost their lives on the line, along with the other union members who got shot in the back on the day of the rioting for standing up for what they believe in,” he added.
Back then, Kohler had 3,000 workers who marched three-deep around the plant. It was the longest strike in U.S. labor history, lasting from 1954 to 1966.
In 1983, Billmann walked his own picket line alongside his father, who retired in 1988 after 44 years at the company. He took his now 90-year- old father out to support those on the picket line in 2015. The solidarity the elder Billmann saw last year made him emotional as he toured the picket line. Billmann said his father insisted on being out there with his brothers and sisters.
“He had to come out. He wanted to come out,” Billmann recalled. “He had a lot of emotions. He had tears in his eyes.”
His father told the strikers: “Solidarity forever!” Billmann said. “He said, “Solidarity, guys. Hang tough. We did it in ’54. You can do it in 2015.’” And they did.
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