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Workers at One of the Country’s Biggest Bourbon Producers Have Been on Strike for a Month

Around 420 workers at the Kentucky-based Heaven Hill Distillery have been on strike for a month. They say the company is pushing to radically change scheduling and remove a cap on health insurance premiums.

Roughly 420 workers at Heaven Hill Distillery have now been on strike for a month at the company’s bottling and warehouse operation in Bardstown, Kentucky. (Shannon Tompkins / Flickr)

Roughly 420 workers at Heaven Hill Distillery — a major bourbon producer whose brands include Evan Williams, Elijah Craig, Henry McKenna, and Old Fitzgerald — have now been on strike for a month at the company’s bottling and warehouse operation in Bardstown, Kentucky.

At issue is Heaven Hill’s push for concessions in a new five-year contract. On September 9, workers rejected the proposed contract, with 96 percent of ballots cast opposing the offer. Shortly after their contract expired on September 11, workers walked off the job.

The workers are members of United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) Local 23D. In a statement on the strike, the UFCW said the company’s proposed contract “removes a cap on health insurance premium increases that reduce take-home pay, cuts overtime, and drastically changes work schedules which makes it harder for employees to support and care for their families.” The UFCW also represents other bourbon-industry workers in Kentucky, including those at Jim Beam.

“Basically, it’s going to end up making us work seven days a week with no overtime,” Mike Corbitt, one of the strikers, told Salon.

That disagreements over scheduling and overtime — the company’s introduction of a “nontraditional” workweek — provoked the strike is in keeping with a trend among workers across the United States who, coming out of the pandemic, are pushing back on employers’ control over so many of their waking hours. The issue was at the heart of a series of strikes across the food-manufacturing industry by members of the Bakery, Confectionery, Tobacco Workers and Grain Millers Union (BCTGM). Workers at Frito-Lay spoke of “suicide shifts,” and Nabisco workers of eighty-hour weeks. In a strike that started last week, workers at Kellogg’s cereal plants nationwide have said that while the expansion of a two-tier system in their contracts is at the heart of their fight, their frustration is informed by the fact that some of them have worked up to 120 days straight without a day off.

The issue of volatile scheduling is also central to the impending strike among IATSE members, which would be the largest private-sector strike since the 74,000-person strike at General Motors in 2007. With few regulations against an employer’s ability to demand mandatory overtime in the United States, the best protection against such unsustainable practices is a union to secure control over hours at the bargaining table.

Heaven Hill workers point out that, while the company is family-owned and often speaks of its workers as part of the family, the proposed scheduling changes will affect their ability to see their actual families.

“What kind of message does it send when a family-owned company is pushing scheduling changes that make it harder for workers to support and care for their own families?” said Local 23D president Matt Aubrey.

Adding to Heaven Hill workers’ anger is the company’s decision to cut off health insurance to workers during the strike. As a letter sent to workers on September 11 states, “Your current coverage will be reinstated as soon as the work stoppage has ceased, concurrent with the ratification of the new contract, and you have returned to work.” In the midst of a pandemic and on top of the company’s proposal to increase health care premiums, the move is particularly egregious, a sign of disrespect from the company to workers who labored through the pandemic, risking their health as they allowed the company to keep up with increased demand.

According to the Distilled Spirits Council of the United States, combined US sales for bourbon, Tennessee whiskey, and rye whiskey rose 8.2 percent in 2020. Heaven Hill currently reports $500 million in annual revenue. Earlier this year, the company opened a renovated visitor center in Bardstown, a project on which it spent $19 million.

In the second week of the strike, a judge issued an injunction against the strikers, facilitating the ease with which the company can bring in strikebreakers to keep its operations running (the judge, in granting the order, said, “I’m not going to put up with chaos”). The move followed allegations by Heaven Hill that workers had damaged trucks entering and exiting the facilities, a charge workers have denied, with UFCW lawyers calling the accusation an “exaggeration.”

Several bars in Bardstown have stopped serving Heaven Hill products in solidarity with the workers at Heaven Hill. Workers say they hope the strike ends soon, given the company’s decision to cut off their health care. As Kate Gaffney, who has worked at Heaven Hill for fifteen years, told one local news outlet, “We had to go to the doctor for my son, the first week that we were on strike, and I told them, ‘I don’t have any insurance.’”