For those of us who appreciate the warm, smoky sting of a nice glass of the good stuff, Tennessee whiskey enjoys the same outsize reputation as Kentucky bourbon; there’s history in every sip, and even the not-so-good stuff ain’t that bad. The two tipples are closely related, historically, geographically, and chemically; a liquor connoisseur will tell you the main difference comes down to an extra step (the Tennessee version is filtered through sugar maple charcoal after it’s distilled, which imparts its characteristic smoothness). But there’s another key factor that differentiates the two iconically American spirits that—hopefully—will soon evaporate like an angel’s share.
In Kentucky, workers at many of the bourbon distilleries that manufacture popular brands like Jim Beam, Buffalo Trace, Heaven Hill, and Wild Turkey are union members, and are represented by the United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW)’s Distillery and Winery division. Until now, none of their Tennessee counterparts could say the same. But in December, workers at Nelson’s Green Brier Distillery in Nashville went public with their desire to organize a union, taking the name United Distillery Workers of Tennessee. They face an uphill battle by trying to unionize in a “right to work” state like Tennessee, whose Republican governor, Bill Lee, is so virulently anti-union that he’s personally led captive audience meetings, but they’re standing firm. The United Distillery Workers of Tennessee’s distillery union drive is among the first for their state, and, as one of the worker-organizers told me last week, is an essential move to protect themselves and their livelihoods.
It started with a strike. On September 11, 2021, following months of stalled negotiations over their next five-year contract, the arrival of a federal mediator, and a September 9 meeting that saw UFCW Local 23D members vote 96 percent against the company’s latest proposal, more than 400 unionized workers at the Heaven Hill distillery in Bardstown, Ky., walked out. Heaven Hill is known for manufacturing some of the biggest names in bourbon, including Evan Williams, Elijah Craig, and Larceny (a personal favorite). Workers pointed out that the bourbon industry had been enjoying record profits. In 2020, Heaven Hill made over $500 million in profits, but during negotiations, the company hardly budged on issues like overtime, wages, and health care premiums. Both labor and the local bar and restaurant community rallied behind the strike, urging consumers to boycott Heaven Hill products or refusing to stock them outright until an agreement was reached. Six weeks later, on October 21, the strike came to an end after workers ratified a new contract. UFCW Local 23D President Matt Aubrey celebrated their contract gains in a press release, saying, “Together, these hardworking Kentuckians preserved the affordable healthcare, overtime pay, and fair scheduling that enables them to balance work with supporting their families.”
Earlier that summer, Heaven Hill had cut the ribbon on the $19 million renovation of its visitors’ center, a project that took two years to complete and was part of a larger $125 million expansion plan. Other distilleries took notice, and even sent their own employees up there to scope it out. Workers from Nelson’s Green Brier Distillery, a historic craft operation in the heart of Nashville that was snapped up by beverage giants Constellation Brands in 2019 and is known for making Belle Meade bourbon as well as its own signature whiskey, took a field trip to Bardstown shortly before the Covid-19 pandemic hit, and found out that their own bosses were planning a big, costly expansion of their own. “Our distillery announced that they were doing a $10 to $15 million build out of our current facility,” Dylan Lancaster, a front-of-house worker at Green Brier and organizer for the United Distillery Workers of Tennessee, told me. “That got us thinking like, well, that’s interesting. We are all getting paid well, well below the industry standard, based on what we know about the distilleries in Kentucky, which are represented almost exclusively by UFCW. And that doesn’t seem right.”
Many of his coworkers agreed, and they decided that unionizing was the answer. On December 10, 2021, the United Distillery Workers of Tennessee went public, initially hoping that the company would recognize the union voluntarily. They had reason to believe that it might work out that way; Constellation Brands already has several UFCW-represented shops within its portfolio, and the Green Brier workers had an overwhelming majority, with 80 percent of the workplace signing union cards. Instead, the company refused to recognize the union and insisted on filing for an NLRB election. Their new corporate owner, Constellation Brands, has ignored them; Nelson’s Green Brier Distillery founders Andy and Charlie Nelson, who are now minority stakeholders in the company, have been compelled to act as go-betweens—and they have not responded favorably to the union drive. “We’ve expressed to them that it is not personal,” Lancaster explained. “This is a struggle between the workers and Constellation Brands, which is a multibillion-dollar corporation. If it was a bad job that people didn’t like, they would just quit and move on, but we want to improve on what they built here to make it better.”
The major issues Lancaster related to me are mostly of the bread-and-butter variety, with wages topping the list. As he notes, many of the major distilleries in Kentucky are located in more rural areas or rooted in small towns; but Green Brier is based in Nashville, where the costs of living are climbing and come with the added risks that attend its reputation as a boozy, late-night party town, rowdy “bachelorette barges” and all. “Bottlers start at $15 an hour, and I think the distillers start a little bit higher than that,” Lancaster estimated. But in terms of front of house associates, tour guides, and hospitality people and the bottling line, nobody makes more than $20 an hour.” That’ll get you about half a bottle of Belle Meade, one of the distillery’s flagship brands (and, it must be said, a damn fine bourbon). Discounts on liquor and other Constellation products are one of the perks of working at the source, but Lancaster told me, “It just seems like those are ways to obscure that we’re getting paid less than almost everyone else in the industry.”
When the pandemic first came to Tennessee, the company sent its front-of-house workers home, while insisting those in the bottling and distilling department remain at their posts; after a few months, everyone was ordered back to work. Lancaster explained how Constellation gave the front-of-house workers a small pay bump to offset the loss of the tips that usually make up part of their wages, but stopped as soon as they went back in. His position as a tour guide means he spends all day interacting with the public in an alcohol-fueled setting, and he sounds more than a little weary when he looks back at what he and his coworkers dealt with last year. “As you can imagine, most people who were traveling to places like Nashville during a global pandemic before vaccines are not the most considerate folks in the world, meaning that they’re not great tippers,” he said. “They were not very willing to adhere to Covid protocols, masks, social distancing, any of that stuff. So we were having to deal with a rather unruly public, and also getting paid less to do it than to stay home and stay safe.”
Workers are also hoping to gain a clearer grievance procedure to address workplace issues, particularly those that have continued to arise as a result of the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic, as well as stricter public health protocols and plans to address what Lancaster characterizes as a lack of diversity and gendered wage disparities. (“It’s definitely more fellas than women at the distillery, at least in the hospitality side, and that has been an issue in terms of the pay gap.”) With the planned distillery expansion looming, the United Distillery Workers of Tennessee are also determined to ensure that whatever comes next will be stronger, safer, and more equitable for them and their next round of new coworkers. “We’ve got this big buildup coming. We’re going to double or triple our numbers of workers, and we want these people coming into this new expanded facility to have all the protections that they deserve,” Lancaster explained. “And we want them to feel welcomed into this new endeavor, and we want to create that and blaze that trail for folks, and just make sure that people are able to pay their rent and have health care and be able to live with dignity.”
Ballots for their union election went out on January 18, 2022, and they have until February 8 to return them. Lancaster is confident that the union will prevail at the February 9 vote count, but he told me a few days ago that he’s been disappointed to see continued resistance from the company. “Since we talked, Charlie Nelson held a captive audience meeting with all the staff onsite at the time where he read off a script and peddled the age-old union-busting hits, ‘The union will take away your benefits and potentially lower your wages,’ and my personal favorite, ‘I’m not anti-union, but a union here is inappropriate,’” he said. Lancaster also told me that the union organizers had asked their Twitter followers to send flowers to the office to mark the first day of voting, and five bouquets soon showed up with notes of support and solidarity attached. Later that week, the flowers disappeared, and they later discovered that Nelson had donated the blooms to a local hospital—without saying a word to the workers about it. (“Charlie’s assistant responded to one of our tweets admitting that she personally drove them to the hospital, which is incredibly sad and petty,” Lancaster told me). But the anti-labor vibes coming from the corner office have not dampened the workers’ enthusiasm to win their union, or to make state—and spirit—history.
“It’s very exciting to be on the forefront of something that is much bigger than us,” Lancaster said. “We decided to refer to our union as the United Distillery Workers of Tennessee, because once we do it, we’re hoping that others will do it.”