SHEBOYGAN COUNTY -- Union leaders told Kohler Co. workers that their strike duties were voluntary on Thanksgiving Day, yet dozens stood on the picket line in the rain anyway.
"We have to. We have to," said Rick Schultz, a 24-year Kohler employee who said passersby had brought the workers cookies and turkey sandwiches. "If we sit at home, we show that we don't care and nothing's going to get resolved."
The United Auto Workers, the union that represents 2,100 workers at the Kohler plant, is demanding that the company scrap its two-tiered wage structure. The union had agreed to the system in 2010 during tough economic times, but now argues that it has created income inequality among workers.
The UAW's proposal would bring the second-tier workers, who make 65 percent of their tenured colleagues, up to top pay within five years.
Kohler will not agree to abolish the two-tiered wage structure at the plant, which is already the company's highest-cost facility in the world, Kohler chief executive David Kohler said Wednesday.
"If the two-tier wage structure disappears, so do the local manufacturing jobs," Kohler wrote in an open letter provided to FOX6 News. "This is not our desired outcome. It is economic reality."
Kohler wrote that the company's offer includes an average raise of $3.18 an hour for second-tier workers.
Striking workers said the chief executive was trying to sway public opinion, but believed that the strike was making the union's position stronger.
"It says to me that he's afraid. He's grabbing at straws trying to scare us," said Tim Firgens, 32-year Kohler employee. "But it's not working."
Several second-tier workers joined their higher-paid colleagues on the strike line Thursday. The group included Peter Soucoup, who was hired after the 2010 contract took effect.
"I do that exact same work, run the exact same machine and someone that's worked here 20 years makes $8 an hour more than me," Soucoup said. "It's like I'm not worth as much as they are."
The workers are drawing pay out of the UAW's strike fund, which they said amounts to about $200 a week, while the contract situation remains unresolved.
Kohler employs more than 5,000 people in Sheboygan County, which is the company's headquarters in addition to one of its 48 worldwide manufacturing facilities.
About 6 percent of the company's 33,000 manufacturing workers are based in Sheboygan County, Kohler said.
For more information on the UAW Local 833's proposal, CLICK HERE.
To learn more about the wage increases that Kohler says it's offering to Tier B workers, CLICK HERE.