Around 400 union distillery workers in Bardstown, Kentucky, hit the picket line yesterday after rejecting a contract offer from Heaven Hill Distilleries, which included healthcare price hikes that reduce take-home pay, cuts to overtime, and drastic scheduling changes. Heaven Hill produces some of the most popular bourbon brands in the world, including Evan Williams, Elijah Craig, and Old Fitzgerald. According to the website Inc. Fact, the company averages annual profits of over $500 million.
In this mini-cast, we talk with Matt Aubrey, president of UFCW Local 23D, to get an update on the strike and workers’ demands.
Additional links/info below…
- Bruce Schreiner, AP News, “Big Bourbon Producer Heaven Hill Faces Strike in Kentucky“
- WLKY, “Employees on Strike at Heaven Hill in Bardstown Demanding Better Working Conditions“
- Inc. Fact, “Heaven Hill Distilleries: Revenue, Growth & Competitor Profile“
Featured Music (all songs sourced from the Free Music Archive: freemusicarchive.org):
Jules Taylor, “Working People Theme Song”
Matt Aubrey: My name is Matt Aubrey. I am the UFCW Local 23D president, which considers Heaven Hill, Barton’s Brand, Four Roses and [inaudible].
Maximillian Alvarez: All right. Well, welcome everyone to another episode of Working People, a podcast about the lives, jobs, dreams, and struggles of the working class today. Brought to you in partnership with In These Times magazine and The Real News Network, produced by Jules Taylor, and supported entirely by listeners like you.
So, as y’all heard, we’ve got Matt Aubrey, president of UFCW Local 23D in Kentucky on the line, and we’re here to talk about a strike that is happening right now, give y’all an update on what’s going on, what the details are, and what y’all can do to show support. As you all know, we try to use these mini-casts as a way to give y’all up to date information on important workers’s struggles around the country, and today is definitely no different.
We’ll link to this in the show notes, but I thought it was pretty funny, Matt. So, I was looking at some of the local coverage on the strike at Heaven Hill Distillery in Bardstown, Kentucky. And this one from WDRB cracked me up because the first line is, “Nearly 400 angry union workers blocked the entrance to Heaven Hill Distilleries in Bardstown on Monday, after rejecting the latest contract offer from the company.”
So tell me, Matt, why are 400 union workers so angry?
Matt Aubrey: Okay. To clarify that, there’s not 400 angry union workers at one location. At the location that person’s speaking of, there were maybe 30 workers at that site. And, see, legally what the picketers can do is, as long as they make a movement, in a circle, straight left and right, as long as they make the movement, they are legally fine. They have really just something less than 60 seconds when they see a truck, a tanker coming in or one coming out, just show their presence, let those people coming in or coming out know that, hey, right now we are on strike. This is the course that’s being taken.
I was there early this morning. I’ve been there since about 6:30 AM. I witnessed some of the things, and there was absolutely nothing like that. A lot of these picketers, these workers, they were just following the course. They were actually doing what they were told to do. There was one little incident where a trucker drove up and started bumping the picketers. We immediately took action and we separated everyone, let that truck driver go through.
So I don’t know where that news coverage… I don’t know where they got their information.
Maximillian Alvarez: [laughs] Yeah. I mean, it always cracks me up. I mean, because this show is obviously very pro-worker, pro-labor, and it’s always nice when we hear folks around the country supporting worker struggles, but then you almost forget just how anti-labor the media has been for so long, and then you run into stuff like that. And you’re like, oh, yeah, that’s right.
Matt Aubrey: Yeah. I mean, for instance, I did an interview yesterday with a news company, and we had like a 15 minute interview. And then a friend of mine called me and he’s like, man, you were on there and you said three words. And I was like, what? And so they want to put on there what they want the people to hear. So they’re doing their job. I just wish a lot of times they were truthful about it.
Maximillian Alvarez: Yeah. It’s a low bar to cross and, unfortunately, a lot of media outlets still manage to trip on it.
Matt Aubrey: Yeah.
Maximillian Alvarez: Well, let me tell you, man, I want to turn things over to you and give listeners just a rundown, both of the strike that’s happening right now and what the view looks like from the picket line. But I was wondering if we could start first by you giving listeners a rundown of the path that led here. I mean, strikes don’t just happen, right?
Matt Aubrey: Right.
Maximillian Alvarez: Y’all have been in negotiations for a long time. We’re still in the midst of a pandemic, during which workers at Heaven Hill Distillery put in a lot of hours and put themselves at risk. So, I mean, there’s a lot going on here. I guess I wanted to turn things over to you and ask if you could let us know what led us to this point, and give listeners a breakdown of what y’all are fighting for?
Matt Aubrey: Yeah. Definitely. We started negotiating with the company late July. That’s when we started with Heaven Hill Corp. When they presented us this working schedule, they had something that they wanted to implement, it’s called a traditional and a non-traditional schedule. So I’m going to try and break it down the best I can. I mean, it can get confusing, but I’m going to try to do the best.
Your traditional schedule: That would be strictly Monday through Friday, five days a week. Of course, there’s always the possibility of overtime, I guess, due to production demand, it just depends. You can never predict that. And then your non-traditional schedule: That would be a weekend shift. It would be Thursday through Monday. When they approached us, they proposed this to the union. We automatically saw red flags. So we went back to the company and we asked them, hey, where are you planning on implementing this schedule to? Is it going to be in the warehouse? Is it going to be in a bottling plant? Where is it going to be?
And see now, they’re building a distillery here in Bardstown, Heaven Hill is, and they plan on running the liquid seven days a week, 24 hours a day. So, we could see that they would need a weekend crew in the warehouses because they’re building new warehouses all over the place, so now they need to fill them up. And that’s the reason for that.
So when we approached the company asking for clarity on, hey, is this going to go towards the warehouse? Towards bottling? They verbally said, well, it’s going to just be warehouse. When I approached them back and I said, look, if you can define the language in your proposal, then it would be more meaningful to this committee that’s in negotiations. They would understand it better. They refused to do it.
So that to me made me think, okay. You’re going to start in the warehouse, but this could trickle down into the bottling plant. So we went back and forth for a few meetings, and then I approached the company and I asked them, I said, with this non-traditional schedule, say you don’t have enough people come in off the street to fill these open positions, what’s going to happen next? And I call them youngest juniors. That means your newer hires. Your younger people on the seniority list. So that the youngest junior… You got your oldest senior, who’s been there number one, number two; and then your youngest juniors at the very bottom of seniority list.
I asked the company, I said, so will there be a risk of moving these youngest juniors to the non-traditional schedule if you can’t fill these voided positions? They wouldn’t answer that either. So that was another red flag.
And the thing of it is that, when we took it back to the table, we started showing the committee members and everyone else, they automatically knew it wasn’t going to work. And if this company keeps pushing that, they are family owned, but they keep pushing to these workers that, hey, you’re our family. We want to treat you all like family, but they don’t realize that a lot of these workers out here are parents. They’re grandparents. They’re uncles. They’re aunts. They have brothers and sisters, they have loved ones. And if they get pushed on a non-traditional schedule where they’re in work every single weekend, those who have children, those who have grandchildren or those that are aunts and uncles and love their nieces and nephews, they’re going to miss those ball games that they play. They’re going to miss those birthday parties. They’re going to miss graduation nights. They’re going to miss proms. I mean, it’s just personal, family oriented stuff.
So when this was taken to the workers, they automatically felt mistreated, and I can understand it. I mean, I’m a father of four. I have three sons and a daughter, and I couldn’t imagine… [inaudible] already working a set schedule. A schedule has been set at Heaven Hill for decades. They’ve never tried to implement a non-traditional schedule. The schedule they worked in this previous contract is something they’ve done for decades. And now all of a sudden they want to say, all right. Well, wait a minute. We’re going to throw something in the mix.
So a lot of these workers, a lot of their grandparents worked there. A lot of their parents worked there, and some of them, their sons and daughters or nieces and nephews, are starting to work there. So my problem with that is, I want the family tradition of the workers to continue. These hard working members and these workers that have been there for decades and decades and decades, bring their family into there, my job and what I want is for their family is to keep having that tradition to work at a place like that.
And the company was just… They can never clarify in the language of what their true purpose was. It was almost like they were trying to hide something. They didn’t want to come out and say, you know what? There is a possibility that four or five years from now, it could go to the bottling plant. We can’t promise nothing. It was more just, here it is. You deal with it.
So when we took the LBF, which is the last, best, and final from the company, we showed it to the workers when they came out to vote, I mean, it was a humongous turnout. And I’ve been in a union for a long time, and out of 420 eligible members, 387 of them voted, and 372 voted no. So you’re talking 96.1%. I mean, it’s a pretty solid number for a group. It’s crazy. And me, personally, I’m happy for them. They got people behind them that want to go to battle for them. And, I mean, right now, I mean, there’s four different locations that they’re picketing at, and they’re nonstop. I mean, they’re 24/7. And every once [inaudible] for a few days you can see people, ah, I’m starting to get tired.
I mean, these guys… I drove by there this morning at 6:00 in the morning on 245 going to Bardstown, and they had a bonfire going on the side of the road and these people had their signs up screaming, hollering. I mean, their spirits are extremely high.
So, right now, we’re at that moment where we’re waiting for the company to return. I spoke with corporate Thursday night and here it is… I forgot what day it is, Monday or Tuesday. And we still haven’t heard a word from them. And you got to look at it also, with this pandemic, when it originally started… And they still are, they’re essential workers. They have been since day one, and they still are right now.
So when they were going into work every single day during this pandemic. They’re risking themselves, they’re risking their co-workers, they’re risking bringing it home to their families. They’re the ones that were getting the hand sanitizer out to your doctors, your nurses, your doctor – Your clinics. I mean, everywhere. They were right there supplying what the frontline workers needed, and they’ve been there. They’ve worked nonstop hours because the bourbon industry… And don’t quote me on this exact percentage because I’m not sure, but I know that bourbon, alcohol increased like 80% since this pandemic. But [since it’s] increasing that much, that just shows how much these workers have been in there nonstop to keep the shelves full.
So, for them, for the company, to come back, and rather than them saying, hey, we appreciate you guys. We understand what you all have been going through. We want to do something for you guys. Now, instead of that, they’re trying to take something away from them. I don’t know if it’s because they saw that… And they were forced to work seven days a week during this pandemic. So I don’t know if they saw it as, well, wait a minute. They’re in here every day, why don’t we try to make sure they’re standing here every day?
So that’s where a lot of the [inaudible] of the members… I call them members, some people call them workers, but that’s where a lot of the animosity and stuff’s coming from, because it’s, hey, we’re sacrificing. We’re not sacrificing just ourselves, but there’s a chance we could get it and take it home to our loved ones. But instead of showing appreciation, now here you are, you want to start taking more away from us.
Maximillian Alvarez: Right.
Matt Aubrey: So we’re at that stage in this.
Maximillian Alvarez: Well, and you know what really strikes me, man, is just how much I’ve been hearing this from workers around the country working in different industries because I’m thinking right now, what you’re saying is something that will sound very familiar to listeners because I mean, what? Two months ago we had a worker, Cheri Renfro, who was on strike at Frito-Lay. And she was talking about how Frito-Lay increased its production, and was making just incredible amounts of profit during the pandemic because people were ordering a lot more snacks. But, at the same time, the conditions at Frito-Lay are so bad that the turnover rate is obscene. And so you had the people who were still there, basically, being forced to work longer shifts, to do a bunch of mandatory overtime –
Matt Aubrey: Right.
Maximillian Alvarez: …And they were saying the same things. It’s just like, man, we sacrificed during the pandemic to make a lot of money for this company, and they don’t care that we’re missing all these birthdays. We’re so exhausted that we don’t even have the ability to really live our lives. We just go to work, work eight, 10, 12, more hours. We come home, we’re so burnt out we just go to sleep, and then we go back and do it again.
Matt Aubrey: Right.
Maximillian Alvarez: There’s more to life than that, but there’s also… I mean, this is what the striking workers at Nabisco are also saying. It’s just you have a similar dynamic there, where you’re saying, yeah, bourbon production was increasing. Cookies at Nabisco. Chips at Frito-Lay. And these employers are responding by just trying to squeeze as much as humanly possible out of their workers without listening to their needs, let alone treating them fairly. And it really just drives me up the walls.
And, I guess, I wanted to ask if you could say a little more about what workers in your local were going through during the pandemic. Because you mentioned something that is really important that I think a lot of people forget about. And the only reason I know about it is because I’ve got a book coming out in a couple months where I interviewed workers during the pandemic. And one of them is a great guy, Kyle Killebrew, he’s a sheet metal worker in Louisville, and he works for Vendome Copper & Brass Works, which is, as you know, but listeners won’t know, they make a lot of the equipment that distilleries use –
Matt Aubrey: Right.
Maximillian Alvarez: …To produce that stuff. And I remember asking him when we were doing the interview for the book, I was like, wait. Were you the guys who made the stuff that distilleries then used to produce hand sanitizer when there was a shortage? And he said, yeah.
Matt Aubrey: Oh, yes.
Maximillian Alvarez: And so were workers in your local making that sanitizer at these distilleries?
Matt Aubrey: Yeah. Actually, I have a hand sanitizer in my truck from the place where I work when I’m not doing union stuff. And, actually, I didn’t know the gentleman, but a member from Heaven Hill actually lost his life to COVID during the pandemic, and it hurt the members a whole lot. And the only thing the company did was to give 30 seconds of silence, and then they moved on. A lot of members around here just feel undervalued for all the sacrifices that we’re making. And I work in the bourbon industry. I work in the warehouses also, not at Heaven Hill, but I work in the warehouses. And, I mean, from day one of this pandemic we’ve been nonstop, and we just do what we have to do.
We were fortunate enough to where we could keep working and be considered essential workers, but there was always that risk. Like I said, at that time, my daughter, she wasn’t born until August. I had three sons at the time. There was always that chance of what if? What if the person I’m working next to, what if something happened and then I take it home? There was always that daily fear, especially at the very beginning because we didn’t know what COVID was. We didn’t know how to treat it. We didn’t know the things we had to do to prevent it from coming into our immune system.
Matt Aubrey: So, the whole industry around here, and I’ve spoken to people at Beam, I’ve spoken to people at Morristown Bourbon – They’re nonunion, by the way – But I’ve spoken to multiple people that work in multiple locations, and they were all in fear, as well. But, we have to get up and make a paycheck every week to provide for our family. And it’s still a little eerie now. I mean, we’re still in a pandemic. And you get these corporations where we’re sacrificing, and a lot of these workers don’t see any appreciation back at it. A lot of these corporations are building up that pie. They’re banking millions and millions of dollars. I think Heaven Hill has already made over 500 million dollars of profit just this year alone already.
So I mean, there’s no appreciation or no showing of, hey, we value you. We value everything that you do. A lot of these corporate people, during this pandemic, stayed home. They work from home. They have that luxury and I get that, but show some value to these workers. So that’s a lot of the things that a lot of these members and these workers don’t understand is, if we’re willing to sacrifice, just show appreciation
Maximillian Alvarez: That should not be a lot to ask, right?
Matt Aubrey: Oh, no. Oh, no.
Maximillian Alvarez: I mean, it really shouldn’t. And I know that I speak for all the folks listening out there when I say that we are with y’all. We’re sending nothing but love and solidarity to everyone on the picket line.
And, I guess, I wanted to, by way of rounding out, because I know you got a lot going on right now, I wanted to ask if you could just tell us a little bit about what it’s been like on the picket line. You mentioned that there was one altercation but, other than that, it’s been solid. I guess I just wanted to ask if you could give listeners a bit of an update on where things are now, and especially what folks out there listening can do to show support?
Matt Aubrey: Okay. Yeah. Definitely. I mean, it’s Monday, so traffic… People are going in and out, it’s a little bit more sketchy than it was over the weekend, but that’s all got lined out. And ever since then, I mean, I tell you what, the people in Bardstown, Kentucky are amazing. I’m a Louisville guy. I’m a city boy. I live in Louisville, but I spend a lot of my time out here in Bardstown. But, the support that these workers at Heaven Hill are getting is absolutely mind blowing. People are donating food, they’re donating ice, water, blankets. They’re donating fire pits. They’re donating even Porta Pots. I mean, it’s unreal to see a community, just in front of your eyes, come together and support these workers because they realize and they see how hard these workers work.
And the thing of it is out in Bardstown, it’s bourbon county. Everyone knows the history of all these places around here. They know how long this place has been around, and they more likely, 99% of them, have a family member or a friend that has, is, or will, work in one of these industries. So, the support group that these workers are getting, I mean, it’s mind blowing. And as for the workers, I’ve been in the union for over 20 years. I’ve never in my life have seen such solidarity and unity like I’m seeing now. I mean, you’re talking about people that… We have work shift schedules, picketing schedules, for the strikers. There’s people that just volunteer to picket for 16 hours a day. There’s people that, hey, you go home. You look tired. I’ll come in and picket for you. Or, do you all need… There’s people just bouncing in and out. I mean they’re everywhere, and it’s just complete solidarity with these workers.
And when I do my rounds and I go around everywhere, I’ll see one person, and then when I get over to the other location 45 minutes later after I check on everyone at that place, that one person’s at that other location. And I’m like, what are you doing here? And they’re like, oh, I’m just checking on it. That’s how they are out here. I mean, that’s just crazy – But I love it. I love seeing the solidarity. I have not seen one person at all during this strike just looking like, ah, I’m tired. I mean, they’re all absolutely 100% in this strike together. And, as their president, I’m extremely proud of them. I am. I’m happy for them, because they know that the union is there and we’re going to fight and do what we have to do to make sure they’re going to get the treatment that they deserve.
So it’s surreal. It’s just crazy to see 400 members, and they’re not 400 angry members. They’re not rambunctious and are wanting to hurt people or nothing. They’re all spread out. And if anyone who lives in Bardstown can drive through and just look, all these people are very respectful. They’re just doing their part to show the corporate part of Heaven Hill that, hey, I have a right to, and I should be treated just as well. So it’s just, as their president, man, I’m telling you, I’m proud to be the president. And I’m proud of every single one of them that go out there. And I’m proud of every person who has come out at this time and will in the future, to just, showing their support. I mean, it is. It’s unreal. It’s pretty crazy.
Maximillian Alvarez: Hell yeah. And I just wanted to ask real quick if there was anything that listeners out there can do?
Matt Aubrey: Yes. Just keep showing us support, whether it’s on social media or if it’s in person, just keep showing support to these members. I mean, they need it and they deserve it. Just keep showing that support, keep showing that your union’s strong, and keep showing that you have their back, because their confidence keeps getting bigger and bigger with the more support they feel they have. And everyone that’s in that support group and that shows to all of them, that they’re doing the right thing, I greatly appreciate it, and everyone at the UFCW greatly appreciates it.