Heaven Hill strikers stand up to Kentucky distillery bosses

By Samir Hazboun
October 4, 2021

BARDSTOWN, Ky. — Four hundred United Food and Commercial Workers members went on strike Sept. 11 against Heaven Hill Brands bourbon distillery here after their five-year union contract expired.

“The biggest issue is what the company calls ‘nontraditional’ scheduling,” Matt Aubrey told the Militant. He is president of UFCW amalgamated Local 23-D who works at the nearby Four Roses distillery warehouse. “They want to regularly schedule us for weekend work without extra pay, and pay overtime after 40 hours, not eight. A lot of people have families and kids — it’s just not acceptable. The company just wants to increase its slice of the pie, to get to keep even more of the profits.”

Heaven Hill Brands is the largest family-owned distillery in the U.S. and produces some of the world’s most popular bourbons, including Evan Williams. Even before the bosses used the pandemic to speed up production, sales of American whiskeys rose more than 37% from 2014 to 2019.

Bettye Jo Boone has worked as a maintenance technician at Heaven Hill for 30 years. “They worked us seven days a week through the pandemic. We were ‘essential workers’ who pumped out bourbon like Niagara Falls,” she said on the picket line. “We also made hand sanitizer. No days off. The company promised they’d ‘take care of us’ at contract time. And now we get this contract, which we voted down by 96%. Houston, we have a problem!”

Pat Boone, Betteye Jo’s husband and a retired printing plant worker, also joins the picket line. “I said, ‘Honey, for 30 years I’ve heard about all the things this company has made you put up with. I wish I could be on strike with you.’ She said, ‘You can!’ and I’ve been here since.

“Really, it boils down to two different classes of people,” he said. “The upper elite own this company. But this place was built by the other class, on the backs of giants. We’re the backbone.”

Margaret Trowe, Socialist Workers Party candidate for mayor of Louisville, who came to bring solidarity to the strike, agreed. “You’re right, there are two different classes. What is needed is for the class that produces, the workers and farmers, to build a movement to make strikes like this a battle of all working people, and strong enough to fight to take power away from the billionaire families.”

The company is trying to run production despite the picket lines by bringing in strikebreakers and hired security to escort trucks in and out, leading to some tense incidents on the picket lines. “One picket had a shoulder injured when a truck crossing the picket line took a turn too fast,” Aubrey said. “Some of the trucks have been covering up their Department of Transportation ID labels to avoid being identified. But we’re maintaining our discipline and standing strong.”

Aubrey said he was a part of the successful strike against Four Roses three years ago, when Local 23-D members fought back against the bosses’ attempt to impose a two-tier system that would have forced new hires into lower pay and worse benefits.

“We’re really anti-tier,” Aubrey said. “You can see how they use it to promote divisions at Ford and GM. It’s terrible. If people are going to work, they should be working as equals.”

Strike boosted by solidarity

Heaven Hill strikers are winning support from unionists and other workers in the area and beyond. United Steelworkers Local 1241 member John Rogers, who works at the nearby Fuji Seal plastic packaging plant with more than 400 union members, came to the picket line with two union brothers to show his support.

“This is a small town, and a lot of us know each other,” he said. “And this strike is all over the news. People coming to support this strike help send a message to the factories in the area that we’re going to support each other. Our contract is up Oct. 3. We might need people here to have our backs.”

Strikers also took advantage of the Sept. 16-19 Kentucky Bourbon Festival, which attracts thousands of tourists to the “Bourbon trail” for a tour of distilleries, including in Bardstown, to get out the word about their fight.

“Us workers here have just taken it for so long,” Paula Clark, a 57-year-old bottle worker who has been at Heaven Hill for 29 years, told the Militant. “My grandkids might want a job here someday. I’ve got to fight to make it good for them.”

Heaven Hill cut off strikers’ health insurance, Clark said. “They have no morals. My husband had a leg amputation and needs a prosthetic leg. Now we can’t do that. But we’re going to stand strong and just make do until we win.”

Some local restaurants are taking a stand to back the striking workers. Buffalo Wings and Rings took all Heaven Hill products off their shelves until the company reaches an agreement with the union. “It’s about doing what you believe in,” Buffalo Wings and Rings District Manager Jessica Raikes told WHAS-11 News Sept. 15. She said that the bar was filled with strikers and their supporters after the announcement, showing their appreciation for the solidarity.

Aubrey said the support the strikers have received so far has been a real boost. “We’ve had people bring by ponchos when it rains. A local restaurant brought us 100 boxed lunches. The Teamsters have come by. Some people have even cut down their own trees to make us more firewood.”

The union picket lines are up 24/7 and strikers welcome all who want to help. Contributions to the strike fund can be sent electronically via Venmo to @ufcwlocal23d and messages of support can be emailed to mattaubrey.ufcw23d@yahoo.com.