Whiskey Rebellion: Union Workers Walk Out Of Distilleries

Jim Beam (Credit: Lasse Ansaharju/Shutterstock)

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Ted Goodman Contributor
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Workers at two Jim Beam distilleries in Kentucky walked off the job after voting down the latest contract offer from the bourbon producer.

More than 200 workers at distilleries in Clermont and Boston, Ken., left work Friday, as management enacted contingency operations to ensure that production continues to meet increasing demand for bourbon.

The workers are represented by the United Food and Commercial Workers Unions (UFCW), and voted 174-46 to reject the latest agreement reached by management and union bargaining teams Friday. The union released a statement following the vote, stating that while there are numerous reasons for the rejection, “the main issues we wish to resolve reflect the family values and heritage upon which the Jim Beam brand is based.”

“We seek a better work/life balance,” Janelle Mudd, president of the union, said in the statement. “We strive to protect our positions and seniority so as to ensure our future.”

The workers picketed outside the distilleries and cited staffing shortages and disregard for seniority as points of contention with management. According to the Chicago Tribune, employees are sometimes working 60-80 hour work weeks in order to keep up with increased demand. The workers have also said that seniority is ignored when it comes to assigning new roles or shifts to employees.

The company released a statement of its own, asserting that the revised contract proposal, “addressed union concerns in areas including overtime and temporary workers, and also included wage increases.” The company said it hoped that, “these team members will reconsider the attractive terms offered and ultimately support the proposal.”

Veteran workers of the distilleries were not pleased with the company’s use of temporary workers in lieu of the strike. “If Jim Beam wants to put the product out with the quality that we’ve done in my 47 years, it has to have our help to do it, so it’s done right,” Bill Ball, a 47-year Jim Beam employee told ABC News.

Bourbon is a $3 billion industry in Kentucky, with 15,400 jobs directly tied to it. Bourbon is made with a minimum of 51 percent corn and aged in charred new oak barrels for at least four years, according to the Kentucky Distillers Association.

The Jim Beam brand is actually owned by a Japanese beverage company, Suntory Holdings Ltd. The state of Kentucky produces 95 percent of the world’s bourbon, and according to the Kentucky Distillers Association, bourbon production has increased more than 170 percent since 1999.

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