BREAKING—One Bourbon, One Strike and No Fear: Jim Beam Workers Win a Better Contract

Mario Vasquez

The strike takes place as Jim Beam and other Kentucky whiskey distilleries benefit from a boom in demand. (viviannny/ Flickr)

This sto­ry has been updat­ed with work­ers approv­ing a new contract.

We take great pride in our jobs at Jim Beam because we are Jim Beam,” says Troy Fra­zier, a pro­cess­ing oper­a­tor with 25 years at the com­pa­ny. We’d be glad to go back to our jobs that we loved, used to love — the way it used to be as a fam­i­ly — but the way that it’s been late­ly, no one liked their jobs.”

After a near­ly week­long strike, more than 200 whiskey work­ers in Ken­tucky, rep­re­sent­ed by Unit­ed Food and Com­mer­cial Work­ers (UFCW) Local 111D, vot­ed Fri­day to accept the com­pa­ny’s lat­est con­tract pro­pos­al. They went on strike Octo­ber 14 after mem­bers over­whelm­ing­ly approved a work stoppage. 

The strike coin­cid­ed, rough­ly, with the expi­ra­tion of Local 111D’s con­tract with Jim Beam’s par­ent com­pa­ny, Beam Suntory.

There’s no mon­ey issue at all involved in the strike. It’s strict­ly to pro­tect our senior­i­ty, and pro­tect our jobs and our whole work-life bal­ance,” Fra­zier told In These Times before the strike end­ed. We’re work­ing any­where from 60 to 80 hours-plus a week, six to sev­en days a week, and the sched­ul­ing needs to be bet­ter. We don’t find out we have to work the week­ends until, you know, Fri­day afternoon.”

Rep­re­sen­ta­tives at Beam Sun­to­ry did not respond to a request for comment.

But before the strike start­ed, Kevin Smith, vice pres­i­dent of Ken­tucky Beam Bour­bon Affairs at Beam Sun­to­ry, was report­ed as say­ing the com­pa­ny was com­mit­ted to resolv­ing the issue as quick­ly as possible.

We are seek­ing to under­stand the rea­sons why the union mem­ber­ship vot­ed down this com­pet­i­tive two-year con­tract pro­pos­al unan­i­mous­ly rec­om­mend­ed by their own rep­re­sen­ta­tives. The pro­pos­al includes sub­stan­tial wage increas­es, cou­pled with oth­er enhance­ments includ­ing elim­i­na­tion of the two-tiered wage sys­tem for almost all employ­ees,” Smith said, accord­ing to The Ken­tucky Stan­dard. Ulti­mate­ly, we hope the employ­ees will recon­sid­er and sup­port this agreement.”

Accord­ing to George Orlan­do, inter­na­tion­al vice pres­i­dent and divi­sion direc­tor with UFCW, the new agree­ment and Fri­day’s rat­i­fi­ca­tion was the result of inten­si­fied, good faith bar­gain­ing with new com­pa­ny bar­gain­ing com­mit­tee mem­bers who bet­ter acknowl­edged and addressed all major con­trac­tu­al issues.

Through the nego­ti­a­tion of mutal­ly ben­e­fi­cial changes in key areas such as staffing, the num­ber and use of agency work­ers, wage inequities, senior­i­ty recog­ni­tion, work sched­ules, and the effect of exces­sive over­time on qual­i­ty of life, the par­ties have com­mit­ted to reestab­lish­ing a bet­ter work­plafe envi­ron­ment, ear­ly prob­lem solv­ing and enhanc­ing their pride in pro­duc­tion and integri­ty of the Jim Beam brand,” he said in a statement.

Union mem­bers told In These Times that the accept­ed con­tract pro­pos­al includes a tem­po­rary work­er cap and a com­pa­ny com­mit­ment to hire full-time work­ers. They are expect­ed to return to their jobs Monday.

The strike took place as Jim Beam and oth­er Ken­tucky whiskey dis­til­leries, which col­lec­tive­ly pro­duce 95 per­cent of the world’s bour­bon, ben­e­fit from a boom in demand. But even with the increase in sales, Fra­zier alleges that the com­pa­ny uti­lizes as many as 100 tem­po­rary work­ers per day, and because these tem­po­rary work­ers are not allowed to work over­time, the work­load on full-time employ­ees is stretched.

The bour­bon boom has been going on now for a cou­ple of years,” says Fra­zier. They need to hire more peo­ple full-time to get these jobs done and that’s the bot­tom line, you know. Quit try­ing to take our jobs with temporaries.”

Jim Beam isn’t alone in the prac­tice of uti­liz­ing tem­po­rary work­ers. A 2016 report by the Ken­tucky Cen­ter for Eco­nom­ic Pol­i­cy deter­mined tem­po­rary employ­ment agen­cies were the fastest grow­ing pri­vate indus­try in the state between 2009 and 2016.

The king of bour­bon, (grand­son of Jim Beam and for­mer long­time exec­u­tive) Book­er Noe, always said come as friends, leave as fam­i­ly’ and we used to be one big fam­i­ly at Jim Beam, but that is not the case any­more,” Fra­zier said before Fri­day’s vote. We’re being run over and we’re being treat­ed unfair­ly, and we’re tired of being walked on.”

Mario Vasquez is a writer from south­ern Cal­i­for­nia. He is a reg­u­lar con­trib­u­tor to Work­ing In These Times. Fol­low him on Twit­ter @mario_vsqz or email him at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)/*= 0)out += unescape(l[i].replace(/^\s\s*/, &#’));while ( – j >= 0)if (el[j].getAttribute(‘data-eeEncEmail_JkRTuBCpnw’))el[j].innerHTML = out;/*]]>*/.
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