NOEL KING, HOST:
It's been a long time coming, but paychecks are finally getting bigger. It's one of the ripple effects of the tight job market, which we are exploring all this week. NPR's Scott Horsley has this story.
SCOTT HORSLEY, BYLINE: For almost 150 years, the Kohler Co. has been a fixture along the Sheboygan River in Wisconsin. Best known for its bathtubs and faucets, Kohler also makes decorative tile and industrial engines - solid products and solid jobs. For decades, Courtney Hering's family has been part of the Kohler story.
COURTNEY HERING: My mother, she's been here 39 years. Two of my uncles - one works in the foundry. My dad worked here for 14 years. And my grandfather on my dad's side, he worked here as well.
HORSLEY: I met up with Hering at the local union hall in Sheboygan. She moved back to this Midwestern manufacturing hub after a stint in the Marine Corps in North Carolina. She got a job in Kohler's distribution center, moving finished faucets and unfinished brass. Her starting pay was about $11.50 an hour. It was only after she'd been working at Kohler for a couple of years that Hering came to a startling realization - many of her colleagues doing exactly the same work were paid nearly twice as much as she was.
HERING: It really did open my eyes to see what was really happening and how much of an opportunity I was actually missing, compared to what I thought I was getting. It made me realize, oh, man, this is a huge gap.
HORSLEY: That gap was a kind of hangover from the Great Recession. Back in 2010, Kohler adopted a two-tiered wage scale, and workers like Hering, who were hired after that, were stuck for years on a much lower track for both pay and benefits. A lot of companies made similar moves during the recession, most notably the big three automakers. Workers didn't have much power to resist when the economy was in free fall.
(SOUNDBITE OF MONTAGE)
UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #1: Seven-hundred seventy-seven points lower on the Dow.
UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #2: There's massive layoffs and the shuttering of facilities.
JIM ZARROLI, BYLINE: There were steep declines in manufacturing, retail, even government.
HORSLEY: George Cooper, who now drives a truck for Kohler, remembers that period as a desperate time.
GEORGE COOPER: They were shutting down plants like the buildings was on fire, you know. And then the housing market took a tank. There's a lot of people that just went without jobs, and trust me, I was one of them.
HORSLEY: Still, Cooper says it was frustrating when he got a job with Kohler two years ago, long after the recession was over, and found that two-tiered contract had locked in lower wages. Cooper realized his pay and benefits were no match for those of other drivers doing the same work.
COOPER: Didn't matter how long I was there; I was never going to reach that same peak plateau that they did.
HORSLEY: Courtney Hering saw similar friction in the distribution center, where newer, lower-paid workers grumbled at being asked to do the same level of work for less.
HERING: Then you end up having your cliques because, oh, they're Tier A, and we're Tier B, and we shouldn't do the same type of work. They would just tell you, flat-out, well, why should I do the same amount of work as that Tier A that's been there 20 years?
HORSLEY: That kind of division not only hurts morale, it can also splinter union solidarity. But in Kohler's case, the two-tiered wage scale became a rallying cry, as veteran workers joined the fight to boost pay for their newer colleagues. Tim Tayloe, who led that battle, started working for Kohler in the mid-1980s, forging molten metal into solid fixtures and a solid middle-class lifestyle.
TIM TAYLOE: I started in the foundry, pouring iron in the foundry. And at that time, it was hard to get in at Kohler. It was the place to work - good benefits, good money, good everything.
HORSLEY: Five years ago, Tayloe was elected president of the local union, and he was determined to restore that good pay and benefits for new Kohler workers. In the lobby of the union hall, Tayloe built a kind of shrine to past labor battles, complete with a picket sign from the middle of the last century, when American unions were at the peak of their bargaining power.
TAYLOE: This was out of somebody's garage - the UAW on strike. That was 1954. We just don't want it to be forgotten, you know. They fought for our future.
HORSLEY: Kohler workers mounted their own strike in 2015, and it lasted more than a month. When it was over, they had narrowed the gap in the two-tiered wage scale, but they hadn't closed it entirely. Then last year, Kohler was back at the bargaining table, even though its contract still had a year to run. By this time, the economy was humming, and Kohler was having trouble filling jobs. In December, the company agreed to a new five-year contract that effectively phases out the two-tiered wage scale by 2023 and gives new workers better benefits, as well. Tayloe says you can see the turnaround in the Kohler parking lot and a new attitude at union meetings.
TAYLOE: Second shift meetings are usually the younger ones, and you see them talking now, and, hey, I'm buying a car. Hey, I got a little extra money; I'm going to go invest this a little for the future.
HORSLEY: So what's changed in the nine years since Kohler first imposed the two-tiered wage scale? In a word, leverage. Unemployment in Sheboygan has tumbled to around 2.5%, and some Kohler employees were defecting to nearby companies, like Sargento cheese and Johnsonville brats. Tayloe says that put workers in a much stronger bargaining position.
TAYLOE: That's what it's about. It's negotiated; nobody hands it to you. You've got to negotiate for these wages and benefits.
HORSLEY: Kohler declined to comment for this story, but when the new contract was signed, CEO David Kohler said in a statement, we are proud to be an employer of choice in Sheboygan County. Other companies are also phasing out two-tiered wages, including the big three automakers. A Ford executive called the unequal pay a distraction on the factory floor. But other companies are still moving in the opposite direction. For example, UPS just adopted a contract that puts new drivers on a lower pay scale. And this winter, the new owner of a locomotive plant in Pennsylvania tried to cut pay for new workers by almost 40%; that's now in mediation.
For now, more than 2,000 Kohler workers in Wisconsin are celebrating their new contract. Courtney Hering, who's getting married next year, is planning a slightly more lavish wedding reception, and she says the mood's improved on the factory floor.
HERING: You could tell there was a lot of happy people, a lot of them. Production went up. People are wanting to stay for more overtime because they know that it's worth their time now, so they're actually able to go out and do more things or save up for something.
HORSLEY: Hering's thinking about buying a house someday. And after seven years at Kohler, she finally feels like she's found a professional home.
HERING: I was told, don't go in a factory. Don't go in a factory. You're not going to have a life there. It feels like I do, and I'm getting somewhere. So I could see myself being here for my career. My family's been in it for at least 40-plus years, so I'd like to kind of continue that tradition.
HORSLEY: Long after the recovery began, a tight labor market has finally given workers the leverage they need to demand a larger slice of the nation's growing economic pie. Scott Horsley, NPR News.
(SOUNDBITE OF DEATH CAB FOR CUTIE'S "TITLE TRACK")
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.