Kentucky distillery strike wins widespread support

Workers fight shifts that wreak havoc with family life

By Kaitlin Estill
October 11, 2021
Strikers and supporters picket Heaven Hill bourbon plant in Bardstown, Kentucky, Sept. 11.
JCAESP AFSCME Local 4011Strikers and supporters picket Heaven Hill bourbon plant in Bardstown, Kentucky, Sept. 11.

BARDSTOWN, Ky. — Some 400 members of United Food and Commercial Workers Local 23D have been on strike fighting contract attacks by the bosses at bourbon maker Heaven Hill distillery here since Sept. 11. Strikers’ picket signs saying, “Family-owned not family oriented towards our families” reflect the major issue in the fight. The company demands workers accept “nontraditional” work schedules, especially for new hires, who would be forced to work weekends at straight-time pay. Overtime pay would only kick in after 40 hours, instead of eight. Bosses also want to get rid of limits on workers’ health care premiums.

“We’ll picket day and night, sun, rain, snow. We’re going be out here as long as it takes to win,” Larry Newton, the plant union chair, told the Militant.

Strikers and supporters picketed at the popular Kentucky Bourbon Festival held here, taking advantage of an opportunity to expand their pickets, hand out flyers and explain their struggle to a broader audience of workers and tourists from around the country.

Newton has worked for Heaven Hill for 20 years. “I ran for plant chairman after seeing what happened during the contract negotiations in 2016,” he said. That year bosses successfully pushed through a divisive two-tier contract with a three-dollar-plus wage differential for new hires, a step many workers oppose. “I said this is not right, I’m going to be in the room next time. And this is the first time in over 30 years Heaven Hill has gone out on strike.”

Many workers on the picket line were wearing bright orange union T-shirts. Striker Frankie Callico told the Militant the union had the shirts made three months prior to the strike, and workers had been wearing them on the job.

The company got Nelson Circuit Court Judge Charles Simms to issue an order that prohibits pickets from blocking plant entrances, stopping people crossing the picket line or following any trucks entering and exiting the facilities.

The company’s lawsuit demanding court action relied on an affidavit from an unidentified private security company they hired that claimed a whole series of union infractions. The bosses urged the court to impose a long laundry list of restrictions on pickets. But the judge denied most of them, saying strikers’ constitutional rights have to be protected.

The union denied any unlawful action on the part of the pickets.

Charles Clarke, a 10-year distillery worker, said the company accusations weren’t true. “We’re not chasing or touching the trucks coming in. And for those crossing the picket line, coming in to work our jobs, they don’t realize that this strike affects this whole town.”

“The bosses at all the distilleries are watching this fight,” he said.

“Fights like this aren’t just happening in Bardstown,” responded Amy Husk, a Socialist Workers Party campaign supporter who drove down from Louisville to show her support for the strike. “This fight is important for the entire labor movement, it shows people can come together and stand up for themselves.”

Clarke agreed. “Organizing all workers is ahead of us, union or nonunion,” he said. “We’re all creating their wealth and we’ve all got to stick together.”

Strikers are winning widespread support in Bardstown and the area. The Kentucky Standard, Bardstown’s local paper, ran an editorial titled, “Now Is Not the Time to Be Union-Busting.”

“The distillery industry is booming,” the editorial argues. It explains that throughout the current pandemic-exacerbated economic downturn, the distillery industry — Heaven Hill included — has been going gangbusters and making soaring profits.

“In that light, the impression that Heaven Hill is hurting financially and needs these concessions from its workers to survive makes it hard to feel sorry for the plight of the industry giant,” the editors say.

Workers from many distilleries in the area have joined the picket line, including from Maker’s Mark, Jim Beam, Four Roses and others, pickets said. Union iron workers, electrical workers and United Auto Workers members have come to bring solidarity to the line.

Campaigning in support of the strikers in a Bardstown neighborhood near the distillery, Socialist Workers Party campaign supporter Ellen Brickley met Deborah Peake, a retired unionist, and construction worker Brian Huntt on their doorstep.

“You all are here to bring solidarity to the strike? That’s great. We support the strikers 100%, honk like crazy every time we pass by,” Peake said. “They’re selling whiskey for God knows how much, making a ton of profit, and then first thing they do is take the strikers health insurance away.”

“Heaven Hill might have the infrastructure and the recipes but they ain’t the ones doing the work,” Huntt said. “Without the workers they’d have nothing, they literally make their profit off of the workers’ backs.”

Heaven Hill told WDRB News the company was planning to resume discussion with union negotiators Sept. 27, the first talks since the workers walked out. “The company is prepared to reconvene with union leadership to work toward ratification of a quality workforce package,” a spokesperson said.

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