By Mark Gillespie
September 11, 2021 – With the biggest weekend of the year in the “Bourbon Capital of the World” just a few days away, visitors to Bardstown, Kentucky for the Kentucky Bourbon Festival may be greeted with picket signs at the town’s newest attraction. Heaven Hill workers started a strike today after their five-year contract expired at midnight and are staffing a picket line outside the Heaven Hill Bourbon Experience, which opened this summer after a two-year renovation and upgrade project.
Members of the United Food and Commercial Workers Local 23-D voted overwhelmingly in favor of the strike Thursday night, according to Louisville television station WDRB. The local represents 420 production workers at Heaven Hill’s main campus in Bardstown and its maturation warehouses around Nelson County, and also represents workers at Barton 1792 Distillery and the Four Roses maturation and bottling facility in Cox’s Creek. Workers at the Heaven Hill Bourbon Experience visitors center are not represented by the union.
Union leaders are upset with what they claim is a proposal to change work shifts to create a “non-traditional” work schedule that includes Saturdays and Sundays, instead of the current Monday-Friday schedule for all production workers. “They feel that rather than working to live, they’re trying to implement things to make them live to work,” Local 23-D president Matt Aubrey told WhiskyCast in a telephone interview. “They’re family-owned and ‘hey, we want to treat everyone like family,’ they’re not treating these members like family…all these members out here, they have a family, they have sons and daughters, grandchildren…they have loved ones that if what the company wants to preserve and what it wants to push, it’s gonna take these members away from their family,” he said.
In 2016, workers were divided on whether to accept the contract that expired last night. That deal included $7,250 in bonuses for each worker over the length of the contract along with annual pay raises in the final three years, and 66% of those voting cast ballots to accept the new deal. According to union leaders, 96 percent of those voting Thursday night supported going on strike as soon as the contract expired.
Heaven Hill executives were not available for interviews, but shared this statement with WhiskyCast.
“Thursday evening, the membership of the United Food and Commercial Workers Local 23-D failed to ratify a new five-year contract with Heaven Hill. Since the company was founded, the support of our employees has been a source of pride and we have had productive conversations with the union for several months now regarding components of the contract. We will continue to collaborate with UFCW leadership toward passage of this top-of-class workforce package.”
The strike will also affect Heaven Hill’s participation in the Kentucky Bourbon Festival, which gets underway this Thursday. Festival officials have confirmed that Heaven Hill will not be taking part in tastings and other events during the festival, including the World Championship Bourbon Barrel Relay competition in which the distillery’s teams have dominated in recent years. Aubrey told WhiskyCast his members will not be allowed to carry picket signs anywhere other than at Heaven Hill facilities represented by Local 23-D, including the Bardstown campus and nearby maturation warehouses. However, they can wear t-shirts promoting their support for the strike in public – including at the Festival grounds around Spalding Hall in Bardstown.
The walkout will primarily affect Heaven Hill’s Bardstown-based bottling and maturation operations. Workers at Heaven Hill’s Bernheim Distillery in Louisville are represented by a different UFCW chapter, and spirits distilled at Bernheim are trucked to Bardstown to be filled into barrels before being placed in one of the company’s warehouses for maturation. Heaven Hill has not indicated whether production at Bernheim will be stopped or slowed down during the strike.
The last strike affecting a major Kentucky distiller came in September of 2018 when Four Roses workers walked out for two weeks over the company’s plans to create a different benefits package for new employees. That dispute ended when the company agreed to allow all employees to choose between the current sick leave policy or sign up for short-term disability insurance that takes effect after an employee uses 10 sick days in a year.
Aubrey also denied reports on social media suggesting that a strike is also coming at Sazerac’s Barton 1792 Distillery in Bardstown, noting that the union’s contract at 1792 Barton does not expire until 2024.
This story will be updated with additional information as it becomes available.
Editor’s note: This story was updated with additional information following an interview with UFCW Local 23-D president Matt Aubrey. In addition, we have clarified where Local 23-D members are allowed to picket to include the company’s maturation warehouse sites where union members work.