September 12, 2018 – Bardstown, Kentucky, long known as the “Bourbon Capital of the World,” kicked off the annual Kentucky Bourbon Festival today with a cloud hanging over this year’s event. The weather forecast in Bardstown calls for sunny skies through the festival weekend with rain expected from Hurricane Florence early next week, but the cloud over the festival stems from the ongoing strike by union workers at Four Roses Distillery in Lawrenceburg and its Cox’s Creek maturation and bottling facility near Bardstown.
No negotiations have taken place since 53 members of two United Food and Commercial Workers local chapters and the National Conference of Firemen & Oilers/SEIU walked off the job at both sites last Friday. The strike follows a 51-2 rejection of the distillery’s final contract offer, which called for implementation of a two-tier benefits structure for new hires with changes to sick leave, and seniority rights. The strike has not affected distilling at Four Roses, which had been shut down before the strike to allow for final construction work on a $55 million expansion project. Bottling operations at Cox’s Creek are done by non-union workers and have not been affected by the strike.
Four Roses executives have declined interviews since the strike began, but the distillery issued the following statement Tuesday:
“We value our employees and recognize they are a crucial part of what makes Four Roses a special Bourbon. We have been negotiating in good faith with the unions and offered a competitive package for our employees. It is our hope that the unions will reconsider their decision.”
That’s not likely to happen, according to UFCW Local 10D President Jeff Royalty, who represents operations and maintenance workers at the Lawrenceburg distillery.
“The union is still standing strong right now…we have no inclination that anyone is willing to change from our initial way of thinking on standing up for the next generation,” he said in a telephone interview Wednesday. “It just appears that this thing is going to lead into the Bourbon Festival, and we are prepared…we’re gonna be at the Bourbon Festival.”
The Kentucky Bourbon Festival draws thousands of whiskey lovers from around the world to Bardstown and the surrounding area each September, but this is the first time in the festival’s 27 years that a distillery strike has taken place during the event. Four Roses is one of the many distilleries participating in the festival, and is expected to draw more than 200 guests to its sold-out annual “Let’s Talk Bourbon” event Friday morning at the distillery. Those guests will have to cross picket lines to attend the tasting and discussion with Master Distiller Brent Elliott, and the unions plan additional activity in Bardstown at the festival’s main venue around Spalding Hall.
“You can’t never tell where we might pop up down there,” Royalty said. “We’re gonna get out and mingle in the crowd, talk to people, get the message across…we want people to have a good time, we’re not going to disrupt any event, but we just want to get the message out that we’re trying to do a positive thing here,” he said, emphasizing that his members will comply with the law while exercising their First Amendment rights. He also expects support from other UFCW members around the region, along with members of other area labor unions.
Kentucky Bourbon Festival executive director Jill Hawkins has been working with Bardstown police on contingency plans for union activity during the weekend. She told WhiskyCast that no organized picketing will be allowed on the lawn area at Spalding Hall, where the participating distilleries and other exhibitors have their displays starting on Friday afternoon and lasting through the weekend.
“The Festival is all about celebrating Bourbon, the industry, the people. That is our mission, that is our goal, so that is what we are going to do. Certainly, the situation at Four Roses is unfortunate, but we’re going to let those parties handle all of that…we’re just going to continue to execute this celebration here in Bardstown and deliver a great experience for all of our guests,” Hawkins said. Spalding Hall is considered private property, while the festival holds city permits for the weekend giving it control over the adjacent city-owned land used for festival events.
Royalty expects his members to be visible in the festival crowd with bright-green “No Concessions: My Family Matters” t-shirts. “It appears to me that everywhere I go wearing it, someone will stop and ask me what it’s about, and it’s a good conversation piece,” he said.
As long as the union activity is limited to informal acts like those t-shirts, Bardstown assistant police chief Capt. Joe Seelye says there won’t be any limits at the Bourbon Festival.
“That wouldn’t meet the threshold of a protest in terms of what law enforcement would need to be engaged with, but one thing the law talks about is time, place, and manner, and so should it be hypothetically an actual protest with 500, 1000 people, then we have set up an area within the event venue that we would ask the protestors to do their actual protest in,” Seelye said. “We’re there to protect those that are going to the venue, the business owners, the citizens, and the protesters themselves…we want everybody to get along, and law enforcement will be there just to ensure everything goes smoothly.”
So far, only one Bourbon Festival event has been affected by the strike. Saturday’s World Championship Bourbon Barrel Relay is not expected to include teams from Four Roses – unless a contract agreement is reached in time.
Editor’s note: This story was edited to remove mention of a two-tier wage structure for new employees. The company indicated after publication that their last contract offer only proposed benefits changes for new hires.