Jim Beam whiskey makers go on strike

LOUISVILLE, Ky.  -- Employees at two plants operated by distiller Jim Beam have gone on strike, saying they are overworked amid a nationwide revival of interest in Kentucky bourbon.

On Saturday, 252 employees of the world's largest bourbon producer ceased production at two of its facilities in Clermont and Boston, Kentucky and entered a strike following months of failed contract negotiations.

Janelle Mudd, a Jim Beam employee and union representative, said Sunday that union leaders had been meeting with the plants' managers since April to discuss a contract that expired in August.

And while a spokesman said the company offered a competitive proposal with salary raises, Mudd said the group had not reached an agreement that would improve workers' quality of life. A key issue is a demand that the company hire more workers so that current employees don't have to work up to 80 hours a week and can spend more time with their families.

"The money is not what we're unhappy about. It's very important for people to understand that," Mudd said. "... But something that always comes back around is their slogan has always been come in as friends, leave as family. That's the way we want to be treated: like family."

In the past week, members of Union Food and Commercial Workers Local 111D have overwhelmingly voted down two contracts presented by the distillery, which is owned by Beam Suntory.

On Tuesday, employees voted 201-19 in favor of rejecting a contract proposal and later voted 174-46 in favor of rejecting a revised proposal and officially going on strike, Mudd said.

The original proposal, according to a company statement, would have included substantial wage increases and eliminated the "two-tiered wage system for almost all employees." And the tweaked proposal included new language about temporary positions, Mudd said.

However, Mudd said employees did not feel like the proposals did enough to address the hiring of full-time workers -- which are needed to keep up with increased demand.

"We're thrilled that bourbon is booming, that's great for all of us," Mudd said. "But if it's booming that well, then you should be able to hire people and put them to work."

Mudd said plant managers had promised to hire more full-time employees and reduce overtime during contract negotiations four years ago — with the introduction of a two-tiered system that lowered starting wages for new workers.

But while the plants have brought in more temporary crew members, Mudd said, the company has not fulfilled its commitment to hiring enough full-time employees.

Now, workers in the bottling and other departments are pulling 12-hour shifts, six or seven days each week, Mudd said.

"All through negotiations, we tried to make the point that what we were trying to change is the atmosphere," Mudd said. "It was about the people, not so much about anything else. It kind of fell on deaf ears."

Until the strike ends, company officials said they would carry out "contingency plans" to keep operations running at the two facilities. The company did not offer specifics about those plans. No shortages of the company's famous bourbon are expected.


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