Striking Kentucky bourbon workers agree to new contract, ending six-week labor dispute

Published 9:01 pm Saturday, October 23, 2021

Striking workers at one of the world’s largest bourbon producers voted to a ratify a new contract Saturday, a day after announcing a tentative agreement with Heaven Hill.

About 420 members of United Food and Commercial Workers Local 23D went on strike about six weeks ago, forming picket lines at the company’s operations in Bardstown, Kentucky, after rejecting a previous contract proposal.

The tentative agreement came just days after the company signaled it intended to start hiring permanent replacement employees for bottling and warehouse operations. The workers then voted to ratify the five-year agreement Saturday, according to a statement from Heaven Hill.

“We look forward to welcoming our team members as we transition back to normal operations,” company spokesperson Josh Hafer said in the statement.

The dispute revolved around health care and scheduling, the latter a sign of the bourbon industry’s growing pains as it tries to keep up with global demand.

Family-owned and operated Heaven Hill produces Evan Williams, one of the world’s top-selling bourbons. The spirits company’s other brands include Elijah Craig, Henry McKenna, Old Fitzgerald, Larceny and Parker’s Heritage Collection.

On Monday, Heaven Hill announced the contract talks had reached an impasse. The company said it would begin the process of hiring permanent replacement workers.

Union leaders responded that they were willing to continue negotiations and accused the company of wanting to replace the striking employees with non-union workers. The two sides resumed bargaining Thursday, resulting in a tentative agreement announced on Friday.

Workers often spend long careers at Kentucky bourbon distilleries, and the jobs regularly attract multiple generations of families. Disputes flare up occasionally, and other strikes occurred in recent years at Jim Beam and Four Roses — other iconic names in the bourbon sector.

The bourbon industry has been on a long upward trajectory.

Combined U.S. sales for bourbon, Tennessee whiskey and rye whiskey rose 8.2%, or $327 million, to $4.3 billion in 2020, despite plunging sales from bars and restaurants because of the COVID-19 pandemic, the Distilled Spirits Council of the United States reported early this year.

Kentucky distilleries produce 95% of the world’s bourbon supply, according to the Kentucky Distillers’ Association.