'Tremendous' union support for Heaven Hill strikers

By BERRY CRAIG

AFT Local 1360

A month-long strike at one of the country’s biggest distilleries merits more national media attention than it has received, says Bill Londrigan, Kentucky State AFL-CIO president.

Members of United Food and Commercial Workers Local 23D have been walking picket lines at the historic Heaven Hill distillery in Bardstown since Sept. 11.

“So far, it hasn’t gotten the publicity other large strikes have—like the one at Mondelez-Nabisco last month and the current strike at Kellogg,” Londrigan said. “Just because Bardstown is a little off the beaten path doesn’t mean the strike doesn’t deserve front-and-center attention.

“A lot of workers have been at this facility for many, many years. They feel like they are not getting fair treatment at this juncture and they are engaging in their right to strike.”

Founded in 1935, Heaven Hill Distillers Inc. changed its name to Heaven Hill Brands in 2014, according to the company's website. While the company is best known for its bourbon, it produces many brands of distilled spirit.

“We are encouraging people to consider other productuntil this dispute is resolved,” Londrigan said, adding, “Solidarity is really strong and judging from the constant horn honking, hand waves and thumbs up the picketing workers are getting, people of Bardstown are very supportive of the striking workers. 

"We are encouraging our union family to make contributions to local 23D’s strike fund [address at end of story] and asking folks to join the picket line and to contact Heaven Hill through emails and other platforms to let them know you support the striking workers.”

Management hasn't returned to the negotiating table with Local 23D, whose 420 members went on strike two days after 96 percent of the membership rejected the company’s contract offer, according to the union.

“Heaven Hill distillery workers are standing up for a fair contract that protects good-paying Kentucky jobs and keeps our economy and community strong,” said a statement from Local 23D President Matt Aubrey contained in a UFCW news release. “Heaven Hill is threatening good jobs in our community by proposing a contract that makes cuts to overtime and threatens to divide its workers with unclear and potentially unfair scheduling...These hardworking Kentuckians have been speaking out to stop these cuts and protect these Kentucky distillery jobs that have supported our families for generations.”

Company representatives met with the union on Sept. 27. A federal mediator urged another meeting for  Sept. 29, but Heaven Hill didn't return to the bargaining table, according to the release.

Also in the statement, Aubrey said“We have been overwhelmed by the strong support from local business owners taking Heaven Hill products off their shelves until the strike is over and are grateful to everyone standing with these Kentucky workers and their families.

“….Our first priority is delivering a strong contract for these Kentucky workers. We are calling on Heaven Hill to work together with us now to help end this strike and make the critical investments needed to support good Kentucky jobs and keep our economy and community strong.”

Heaven Hill is enjoying a strong bottom line. "According to Inc. Fact, the company averages annual profits of over $500 million," Maximillian Alvarez wrote for In These Times.

"Kentucky has been in the midst of a 'bourbon boom' for over a decade, which has served the distillery well," Ashlie D. Stevens wrote in Salon. "In June of this year, the company opened a new $19 million expanded visitor's center in anticipation of post-pandemic tourism."

Even so, she added, "the distillery recently terminated employee healthcare coverage and benefits due to 'the union contract expiration and resulting strike between U.F.C.W. Local 23D and Heaven Hill,' according to a Sept. 11 letter from the distillery obtained by Salon."

The letter also said: "Your current coverage will be reinstated as soon as the work stoppage has ceased, concurrent with the ratification of the new contract, and you have returned to work."

Londrigan, state AFL-CIO Secretary-Treasurer Jeff Wiggins and members of several different unions have joined picket lines. "We've had a tremendous amount of support from other unions," said Larry Newton, 23D plant chair.

"This is a strike about family life," Wiggins said.  "This is not a strike about money or benefits. This is a strike about your time at home with your family. The company wants to force [employees] to work 7 days a week and not have any time off.

"So it's about having some kind of family life, not just a work life. You don't go to work just to work. You go to work to support your family but you've got to have time off to be with your family."

Local 23D has negotiated with the company for six months, the release also said. “In July 2021, the union called for a federal mediator to join the process to help to advance talks with the company.”

Donations to the Local 23D strike fund may be mailed to Robert R. Greenwell, the local's secretary-treasurer, at UFCW Local 23D, 596 Hunters Lane, Bardstown, Ky. 40004. The phone number is 502 510-2606.