Bicker over liquor: Jim Beam workers offered new contract

LOUISVILLE, Ky. – Striking Jim Beam workers upset over extended work hours to keep up with demand for the brand’s whiskeys were presented a new contract offer Thursday that includes a company pledge to hire more employees, a union official said.

About 250 union workers are scheduled to vote on the latest contract proposal Friday, said United Food and Commercial Workers union official Tommy Ballard. They walked off their jobs last Saturday at Jim Beam distilleries at Clermont and Boston in Kentucky.

The newest offer follows rounds of negotiations and a management listening session that allowed workers to voice grievances.

“They really listened to what we told them the issues were, and they came through on a lot of them,” Ballard said of the revised proposal.

Workers’ main complaint with the world’s leading bourbon producer was not money but time — the union wants to see more full-time workers hired, rather than a greater reliance on temporary workers.

The company’s newest offer includes a commitment to hire additional full-time staff in an effort to reduce overtime, Ballard said. Many workers say demand for Jim Beam whiskey has them putting in 60 to 80 hours a week to keep up.

Those long hours make it difficult to balance home and work lives, workers said.

The company offer also includes pay raises and would eliminate a two-tiered wage system at the plants, Ballard said.

The walkout soured what has been an era of smooth relations between management and labour in Kentucky’s whiskey industry, which has ridden a wave of renewed popularity in recent years.

Company spokesman Clarkson Hine on Thursday pointed to signs of “very good progress” in recent negotiations and said the company was encouraged by the tentative deal reached with union leaders.

“Demand for bourbon has accelerated considerably since the last contract renewal, and that’s created a lot more work within our operations,” he said in a statement. “We share the concerns of our valued union team members, we’ve worked hard to address them and we hope this agreement will be ratified when it is put to a vote.”

The classic American whiskey brand is owned by Suntory Holdings Ltd., a Japanese beverage company.

The distillery workers started manning picket lines last Saturday, a day after overwhelmingly rejecting another contract offer. Beam said its contingency plans would keep operations running to keep whiskey flowing to distributors and consumers.

The walkout comes as the crucial holiday season looms for whiskey producers.

Kentucky is home to about 95 per cent of the world’s bourbon production. Both the bourbon and whiskey industries are enjoying growing sales worldwide, in part driven by higher demand for premium spirits and cocktails.