Striking Against Corporate Greed at Kentucky's Biggest Bourbon Distillery

A picket-line interview with Heaven Hill's plant chairman

This interview first appeared on Fingers, a newsletter about drinking culture, being online, and beyond.

by Dave Infante

On midnight this past Saturday morning, production workers went on strike at Heaven Hill, the largest single-site bourbon distillery in Kentucky. The 420 employees, represented by United Food and Commercial Workers Local 23-D, had voted overwhelmingly to authorize the stoppage in the event that contract negotiations with the family-owned distillery couldn’t be sorted out before the existing contract expired at 11:59p last Friday. The company, whose Bardstown, KY campus includes a popular visitors center that was recently renovated for $19 million, refused to budge on key items. So last Saturday morning, the area’s largest distillery strike since Four Roses workers’ 2018 walkout began in earnest.

At issue in the negotiations are healthcare costs, and Heaven Hill’s insistence on writing “non-traditional” scheduling practices into the new contract. Workers say the policy would rob them of weekends with their families and result in less overtime pay. “They preach ‘family-owned, family-operated’, but it’s corporate greed,” said plant chairman and union steward Larry Newton, a two-decade veteran of Heaven Hill. He was outside the plant starting at 11:30pm this past Friday night, answering questions from fellow union members and preparing for the strike. “I wanted to show them: they support me, and I support them, because we support each other,” he told Fingers in a phone interview from the picket line earlier this week.

Newton is proud of making Heaven Hill’s spirits brands, which include Evan Williams, Rittenhouse, Elijah Craig, Lunazul, Deep Eddy, and many more. But he’s angered by what he considers to be a “corporate greed” that has overtaken the distillery’s management team in recent years: “10 years ago, this wasn’t happening,” he said.

A Heaven Hill spokesperson, Lauren Cherry, declined Fingers’ request for an interview, but provided a brief statement from the company that said it would “collaborate with UFCW leadership toward passage of this top-of-class workforce package.”

Fingers spoke with Newton about the striking Heaven Hill workers’ demands and frustrations, and what attendees of Bardstown’s Kentucky Bourbon Festival this weekend—as well as sympathetic drinkers around the country—can do to help their cause. “We would greatly appreciate all support, and not to buy any Heaven Hills products… until we the people get the respect and the treatment that we’re asking for,” he said. “We don’t feel like we’re asking for a lot.”

This interview has been edited and condensed.

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Dave Infante, Fingers: Larry, thanks for getting on the phone. How are you doing up there?

Larry Newton, Heaven Hill plant chairman: Doing okay. My voice is just a little hoarse and crackly, but I’m doing good.

I hear you've been facing some inclement weather up there.

Oh, we’re doing great. The rain is gone, the sun’s out… I mean, people are happy. They liked the rain, they said it breaks up the heat.

Fair enough. How many workers are in the Heaven Hill union?

We have a [headcount] of 460, but we’ve got some [workers] on a probation period… so we have a number of 420, plus we’ve got some extras who just passed their probation period and are in the union now. So it’s plus-or-minus 440 or so, now.

The coverage I’ve seen indicates that the company’s proposal for non-traditional scheduling is a major factor in your union’s decision to strike. Is that accurate?

We'd like to have clarification. We want more information on how the company is expecting this to work, or how it is going to work. They’ve got a new distillery that they’re wanting to build, and they actually started on [building.] We've asked them, ‘Are you going to put this non-traditional [scheduling policy] on this distillery?’

The [workers] at Heaven Hill… we're not against working seven days a week, but it's just when they do the non-traditional [scheduling], they’re taking away our time-and-a-half and our double-time [pay.] And when they do that, if we work a Saturday and Sunday, our off time will be on a Tuesday or Wednesday. Our children will be at school, everybody else is at work. We’ll miss out on graduations, we’ll miss out on weddings, we’ll miss out on all that family time. That's one thing that we want to keep.

The upper management, they’re not here on weekends. They don't come in here seven days a week like we are. They forced us… we were forced during this pandemic, we were forced to come in here seven days a week, and they kept our time-and-a-half and our double-time pay. Yes they did! We were so grateful for it. The union itself, we bent over backwards, we were so flexible with this company to keep its doors open to people coming in and keep working. But the company showed us no appreciation. No appreciation whatsoever. We worked with the company and… the company did work somewhat with us on things.

But if the man that actually owns this business, if we were dealing with him, we would not be striking today. 10 years ago, this wouldn’t happen then. 10 years ago, this guy here, he would’ve made sure we weren’t out here. But it’s the ones below him… they don’t care. They don't care about our families. During the whole pandemic, they were home with their families. They got their weekend time and all that, with their families, but we were not. We were coming in here, and we were being exposed. There were numerous times that there was a breakout [of coronavirus infection] in the facility. We’d have to shut everything down, but we’d move people from different departments… to keep their business running. The company showed no appreciation on that. I can’t say we broke our rules, but we bent our rules for them.

Sorry, just to be clear: did you say they kept your overtime pay during the pandemic, as in they withheld it? Or that they maintained it, like they continued to pay it to you guys?

They did [continue to pay us overtime] before the contract expired on September 10th at 11:59pm. They [maintained] our time-and-a-half and our double-time on Saturdays and Sundays. Now they're wanting to take that away with the non-traditional scheduling.

It's not all about the money. I want to [be clear] that it's not all about the money, it's about our family time. I mean they're taking the time-and-a-half and the double-time and they’re telling us ‘We’ll get you overtime after 40’ [hours.] You're not giving us nothing! That’s federal law, you have to do that! So they're making it like they're giving us something. And this top-of-the-line, top-of-the-class package that they're giving us? It’s not that!

Plus, to your point, getting Saturday and Sunday is a lot more preferable than getting a random Tuesday or Wednesday off. It’s harder to plan your life that way.

Right! We’re not [saying] we will not work Saturday and Sunday. We have! We know what's coming. We know what's coming when we go back to work, we know it’s probably going to be a Saturday and Sunday. We want to make sure that we get paid for us coming coming in and doing our job!

Of course.

Before, like I said, during the pandemic, we were forced to come in. We were mandatory, and if we didn't come in, they start taking disciplinary action. ‘You're missing too much time.’ And they started writing people up. During the pandemic, there were times where [workers] didn’t have childcare, or they had loved ones at home that needed to be taken care of because they couldn’t take care of themselves. They were getting disciplined over that. You do not treat family that way.

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“We want to see the company grow”

You mentioned earlier that you don’t think this would have happened 10 years ago. Do you feel like Heaven Hill’s management has shifted to take a harder line with labor?

I don’t want to mention any names, but like I said, the man that owns the company, if he was sitting at a table negotiating with us… I mean, I have a lot of respect for this guy. We all have respect for this guy. There’s no disrespect for the man that owns this company. It’s the other ones that are operating it, they’re trying to force things upon the union. Some of them, they don’t care about our families. They preach ‘family-owned, family-operated’, but it’s corporate greed.

Heaven Hill has been expanding over the past few years. It seems to be doing well.

They definitely are. They’re buying up land to build more warehouses. They're tearing their old warehouses down to build much bigger, more modern warehouses that have elevators on both ends, lights on all the floors. They’re going all out with this. We want to see the company grow, and we love watching the company grow, but we also want to be able to grow with the company. We don't think that we're asking too much, just to let us grow with the company.

Can you describe sort of what the experience has been on the picket line? How long have you been out there?

I’ve been out here since Friday night at 11:30pm. Like I said, I’m the plant chairman, I want to make sure… my members stood behind me and I explained everything to them. They all had questions, and we make sure that their questions was answered and they understand thoroughly, and they do.

They knew it was wrong. These people out here, I wanted to show them: they support me, and I support them, because we support each other. Because this union here, we are a family. We do take care of our people.

You obviously have a lot of pride for the work that you do at Heaven Hill and the company that you're helping to build, but you also feel like management isn’t giving you and your fellow workers a fair shake. Do you feel conflicted about striking?

It’s honestly frustrating… They got these security guards that are trying to provoke our guys [on the picket line], and cussing at young women out here. It's horrible. You just don't treat people like that. That is the frustrating thing about it: they think that we're like going to destroy something, or tear something up. We know when we go back to work, we don't want have to go back into something like that. We take pride in where we work. We take pride in our jobs. When we go back, we just want a fair contract. We want to go back to work, and go back to the way things were, but even better.

Do you feel as though it's important for other distillers in the region to see that your unit is not going to take a bad contract? Is there a broader significance, in your mind, in striking against Heaven Hill?

We have support from all over. We're talking local, out of state… We've got people that are coming up, bringing food, cooking for us, bringing water and rain jackets. We have so much support and cannot say thank you enough to these people. Just like when Four Roses went on strike a couple years ago, we [at] Heaven Hill took up a collection for them, we went down and walked the picket line, we gave some of those [workers] time to go home and be with their family, to let them rest and take breaks, get some sleep. That’s what we do, this is the union that we are. We are a supportive union.

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What are the workers asking for, in terms of how people who aren’t there can support from afar?

We would greatly appreciate all support, and not to buy any Heaven Hill products. Do not buy anything Deep Eddy. Do not buy anything that’s from the Black Velvet Canadian whisky [line], or Elijah Craig, Evan Williams, Larceny, Burnett’s vodka. Any of that that’s affiliated with Heaven Hill, do not buy none of that… until we the people get the respect and the treatment that we’re asking for. We don’t feel like we’re asking for a lot, not at all.

In terms of your communication with the company, I understand that Heaven Hill hasn’t really made any moves since the strike began, is that right?

That's right, and they went out and got some temps to try to do what our 460 [union] members do on a daily basis. And my understanding is, they’re not doing well. [Heaven Hill] has a stockpile of stuff that they’re shipping out, but they’re not putting away, and they’re not getting through production like they normally do.

As I speak right now, they’ve got another bus coming in. Everybody's got a job to do in this world, and we wish no harm upon anybody. We’re all human. We understand people gotta work, and they got families to feed as well. We don't hold anything against those people.

What's the message that you hope to send to bourbon enthusiasts who are coming to Bardstown for the Kentucky Bourbon Festival this weekend? What would you like them to understand about the collective action you and your fellow workers are taking?

We would love to be there, to show what we do. It hurts us that we can't participate in it. But we’re not going to support the company if the company won’t support us. For the people that are coming in from all over the world, we’re asking you: don't purchase anything of Heaven Hill’s. Don’t visit that new tourist center that they just open up, do not go there. Do not give them any business. Support us, stand behind us. We’re just asking for support to let Heaven Hill know how valuable these 460-some members are.

Larry, thanks again so much for your time, that’s about all I’ve got for you. I’ll let you get back to the picket line.

Thank you very much. We’re Local 23-D. We’re union strong, and we’re gonna be here all day long. Whatever it takes, as long as it takes.

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