Whiskey Workers Go on Strike: I’ll Drink to That

More than 250 members of United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) Local 111D, at two separate Jim Beam distilleries in Kentucky (one at Clermont, Kentucky, the other at Boston), have gone on strike to protest working conditions.

Jim Beam distillery employees have made it clear to management that the walk-off isn’t primarily about wages and benefits; rather, it is in response to job and shift seniority issues, hours of work, and the use of temps and part-time employees.

The Japanese parent corporation—Suntory, Inc., which owns Jim Beam, the world’s largest producer of bourbon whiskey—has made two offers to the union, both of which were resoundingly rejected by the membership. The first vote was 201-19, and the second vote was 174-46. Clearly, the company hasn’t been listening to the union’s concerns.

According to Janelle Mudd, president of Local 111D, one of the critical issues involved here—one of the main components of the strike—is the tremendous amount of overtime being forced down the workers’ throats. Because bourbon sales worldwide have soared dramatically over the last year or two, overtime has been required to meet demand. Working 60-80 hours a week is not only not uncommon, it’s become the norm.

But instead of doing what other companies do—augmenting the workforce with additional people per the provisions of the labor agreement—the company is haphazardly hiring temps and part-timers, and circumventing the shift and job seniority language of the contract by utilizing these employees in any manner they choose.

Granted, it’s always better to have too much “job security” than too little, but there are limits to everything, including one’s work week. Enough is enough. As anyone who’s ever pulled back-to-back-to-back double-shifts in a factory setting will tell you, by the time you finish a week of it, you don’t whether you’re coming or going. And as for family relationships and obligations, you can forget about it.

The state of Kentucky is the bourbon center of the globe. Thoroughbred race horses and whiskey. By itself, the state of Kentucky produces 95% of all the bourbon whiskey sold in the world. Indeed, last year alone, Kentucky filled more than 1.9 million barrels of bourbon. There have been reports that “hard liquor” (as opposed to beer and wine) is quietly making a comeback. Jim Beam’s sales will attest to that.

All we can do is wish UCFW Local 111D best of luck in its effort to secure a decent contract. Obviously, with the company seemingly unwilling to compromise, it’s going to be tough. Also, there’s another obstacle that’s looming especially large. Among union negotiators and human resource creatures it’s known as the “Third Vote Syndrome.”

While it’s not uncommon for union members to vote down an inferior contract, and not even that uncommon for them to vote down a second offer, things change radically when a third offer is brought back for a vote. Melancholia and torpor set in. When the company comes back with its third crappy offer, people subconsciously begin to think that maybe this is the best deal they’re going to get, and that staying out on strike is counterproductive.

But if a union membership can vote down that third offer, they’ve got a real shot at forcing the company to take them seriously. Again, all we can do is wish them best of luck. Suntory is not known for its labor friendly posture. Still, many of the jobs involved with distilling bourbon are “skilled” positions, which means the union has significant leverage. It’s going to be interesting.

David Macaray is a playwright and author. His newest book is How To Win Friends and Avoid Sacred Cows.  He can be reached at dmacaray@gmail.com

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