Shots All Around: How Four Roses Bourbon Workers Won Their Strike

Richard Becker January 8, 2019

After workers at the nearby Jim Beam distillery fought off two-tier, Four Roses workers had confidence they could do it too. (Photo: Richard Becker.)

Work­ers at the Four Ros­es bour­bon dis­tillery and bot­tling plant chose their moment well.

Just as their indus­try was prepar­ing to wel­come thou­sands of vis­i­tors for September’s Ken­tucky Bour­bon Fes­ti­val, they walked out on strike — in defense of work­ers they hadn’t even met yet.

This is a fam­i­ly com­pa­ny,” said Matt Stone, a leader in Food and Com­mer­cial Work­ers (UFCW) Local 10D. Grand­fa­thers, fathers, sons all work here for gen­er­a­tions, and my fam­i­ly may be work­ing here one day. We want to take care of the next guy.”

With few resources at their dis­pos­al, these 50 work­ers in rur­al Ken­tucky stared down the Japan­ese con­glom­er­ate Kirin Brew­ery, which owns Four Ros­es, and won.

Take care of the next guy’

The dis­pute was over a two-tier con­tract pro­pos­al that would have giv­en worse ben­e­fits to new hires.

One fact Four Ros­es hadn’t count­ed on was that many of its employ­ees had friends who worked at the near­by Jim Beam dis­tillery. Two years ago, Jim Beam work­ers struck over a sim­i­lar issue and forced their employ­er to back off.

The Four Ros­es work­ers, rep­re­sent­ed by UFCW Locals 10D and 23D and the Nation­al Con­fer­ence of Fire­men & Oil­ers (SEIU), spent near­ly two weeks walk­ing the pick­et lines near the dis­tillery in Lawrence­burg and out­side the bot­tling and ware­house facil­i­ty in Coxs Creek.

When they returned to the bar­gain­ing table with the assis­tance of a fed­er­al medi­a­tor, with­in hours they had a ten­ta­tive agree­ment — and in the words of Local 10D Pres­i­dent Jeff Roy­al­ty, There is no two-tier in Lawrence­burg, Kentucky!”

Bour­bon boom

Pre­cise­ly what caused the com­pa­ny to back down remains some­what of a mys­tery, even to the work­ers involved. What is clear is that their pub­lic cam­paign — direct out­reach to would-be cus­tomers, sup­port from the local com­mu­ni­ty, sol­i­dar­i­ty from oth­er unions, and out­reach to the media — helped turn the tide.

The work­ers also had a strate­gic analy­sis of their sit­u­a­tion. A glob­al boom in the bour­bon indus­try gave them lever­age. After all, bour­bon-mak­ing is a long process. Since the raw prod­uct must age in bar­rels for years before it can be sold, any pro­duc­tion time lost would affect rev­enue years down the road.

Fur­ther, the industry’s record prof­its com­plete­ly under­mined any jus­ti­fi­ca­tion for con­ces­sions. Work­ers knew Kirin could afford to do better.

Final­ly, the strik­ers had the sup­port of the large­ly union work­force doing con­struc­tion on the prop­er­ty. The day the strike began, the con­struc­tion work­ers packed up their tools and left, refus­ing to work dur­ing the strike.

Did it themselves

The Four Ros­es strike was orga­nized, man­aged, and staffed almost exclu­sive­ly by rank-and-file mem­bers, not offi­cers or staff. Work­ers made their own signs, han­dled all media inter­views, and orga­nized pick­et line shifts.

You’ve got­ta do what you got­ta do,” said Jeff Scott, a boil­er oper­a­tor at the dis­tillery. You can’t wait for oth­er peo­ple to step up. We prob­a­bly put in more hours work­ing the pick­et line than we would’ve if we’d been working.”

The work­ers orga­nized park­ing near the dis­tillery for pick­eters, secured out­door bath­room facil­i­ties, and main­tained a round-the-clock pres­ence at both plants to mon­i­tor for any signs of the com­pa­ny bring­ing in replace­ment workers.

As it turned out, the com­pa­ny nev­er did bring in replace­ments. But rumors that they were gear­ing up for it added a sense of urgency to the work­ers’ actions.

Fes­ti­val spotlight

Con­ve­nient­ly for the strik­ers, the annu­al Ken­tucky Bour­bon Fes­ti­val gave work­ers what Scott called our best chance to put pub­lic pres­sure on the company.”

Work­ers and sup­port­ers descend­ed on the event to leaflet fes­ti­val-goers. I think it was a black eye for the com­pa­ny,” Scott said.

Those on the pick­et line also talked con­stant­ly to tourists who were hop­ing to vis­it Four Ros­es. Time and again, the vis­i­tors turned around. One retired union rail­road­er from Mis­souri told the work­ers he wouldn’t cross the pick­et line for anything.

Tours — and the gift shop rev­enue they gen­er­ate — are among Four Roses’s biggest mon­ey­mak­ers. Atten­dance dropped sig­nif­i­cant­ly dur­ing the two-week strike.

Late in week two, work­ers drove to Louisville to leaflet in front of a restau­rant where Four Ros­es was co-host­ing a spe­cial event. The Fair­ness Cam­paign, a local LGBTQ rights orga­ni­za­tion, hap­pened to have an office next door, which it lent as a base of oper­a­tions — offer­ing its bath­rooms and copy machine.

No back­ing down

Two-tier con­tracts are bad for sol­i­dar­i­ty. They spark resent­ment and erode a union’s posi­tion among new­er work­ers, espe­cial­ly in a right-to-work” state like Ken­tucky, where union mem­ber­ship is voluntary.

Why should I sup­port the union,” new work­ers may ask, if the union sold me out before I even showed up?”

To get two-tier con­tracts past cur­rent mem­bers, employ­ers count on short-term self-inter­est. Four Ros­es, which was offer­ing unusu­al­ly large sign­ing bonus­es, claimed implau­si­bly that the new sys­tem would be bet­ter for cur­rent work­ers and pro­vide more flex­i­bil­i­ty and choice to new workers.

The com­pa­ny con­tin­u­ous­ly remind­ed work­ers that the pro­posed changes would apply only to new hires. But the work­ers didn’t budge.

I’ve found my calling’

Dri­ving along the nar­row coun­try road that leads to the dis­tillery, you could see hand-paint­ed signs express­ing sup­port for the strik­ers dis­played in yard after yard. Every day com­mu­ni­ty mem­bers brought bot­tled water, soft drinks, snacks, and meals for the picketers.

When politi­cians and elect­ed offi­cials stopped by the pick­et line, work­ers post­ed pho­tos on Twit­ter and Facebook.

Mem­bers of Team­sters Local 89 were among the sup­port­ers who spent many days on the pick­et line. Even Local 89 Pres­i­dent Fred Zuck­er­man — a nation­al fig­ure who near­ly unseat­ed Team­sters Pres­i­dent James Hof­fa in the union’s last elec­tion — showed up, dri­ving a truck embla­zoned with the Team­sters logo.

Sev­er­al weeks after their vic­to­ry, work­ers from Four Ros­es hit the road for Louisville again — this time to join some­one else’s pick­et line. Team­sters Local 89 now had a strike of its own at Allied Ready-Mix.

I asked Jeff Scott that day what he had learned from the expe­ri­ence of striking.

I’ve worked [at Four Ros­es] for 16 years, and that was my first time real­ly get­ting involved,” he said, pick­et sign in hand. To be hon­est with you, I feel like I’ve found my calling.

You may think you’re on your own, but you’re not. Peo­ple have your back that you don’t even know. That’s why I’m here [in Louisville] today.”

This piece first appeared in Labor Notes.

Richard Beck­er is an orga­niz­er with the Nation­al Con­fer­ence of Fire­men and Oil­ers, SEIU 32BJ, based in Louisville.
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