Inside The Four Roses Strike

By B.E. Mintz |

For the last week and a half, Four Roses has neither produced nor bottled a single drop of bourbon. The distiller’s brand new $55 million facility in Lawrenceburg, KY is sitting silent, but there is plenty of noise down the road where the company’s entire labor force is picketing. 

Represented by three unions, United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) Local 10D, UFCW Local 23D, and National Conference of Firemen and Oilers (NCFO), the company’s 53 workers on strike. The employees work at both Four Rose’s Lawrenceburg distillery and the Cox Creek, KY bottling plant. We talked to Jeffrey Royalty, President of UFCW Local 10D to learn more about the strike.

Royalty explained that new contracts are negotiated every five years. After an initial back-and-forth, the company agreed to many of the workers’ terms, but a sticking point emerged. “We’ve got the company going in the right direction,” Royalty told Neat Pour. “The last time I met with them, they said that they would let current employees keep their benefits. But, they wanted any new hires to have less benefits on the sick time.”

The structure described by the strike leader is known as a “two-tier system” whereby management grandfathers the benefits for existing employees, but any new hires are placed on a different track with an essentially lesser contract.

Four Roses argued that they never proposed a two-tier plan. “A claim that we are proposing a two-tier sick leave policy that discriminates against new hires is not true,” the company declared in a statement. “We agree that the new hires would not receive the same sick leave benefits as current employees, but we believe the new hires’ program is better, not worse.” 

Royalty dismissed the denial as a matter of semantics. “Their definition of two tier must be different than mine,” he countered. For the union members, any segmentation is simply not acceptable.

Pointing out one striker who is a third generation, “40 year man” at Four Roses, Royalty said that the two tier offer was a bridge too far. “They’ve offered the existing employees what we’ve had for the past 30 years, but they are not offering it in good faith, they are offering it at the cost of the next generation. It just didn’t sit well with us,” he explained. “Sometime in the past, someone else fought this fight for me. Gave me the chance to have a good job and support my family and we thought that we need to do that for the next generation.”

At an impasse, the membership voted unanimously to strike on September 10. The union leader said that the subsequent outpouring of support from the community has been overwhelming. Use of the Bonds Mill Road lot where the picketers are set up was donated. So were the canopies providing shade and the water sipped by the strikers. Royalty described neighbors bringing the workers food daily.

“Anderson and Nelson Counties have been very supportive,”he elaborated. “It’s a humbling experience to see how many people care about you when you’re in a time of need.”

However, one set of neighbors not providing support are the legislators in Frankfort. Last year, the state passed strong anti-union legislation. “With this right-to-work that they pushed through in Kentucky, they think right-to-work is right-to-take. I got news for them, it reignited the fire inside of every man and woman in unions in Kentucky,” Royalty opined. “Can I stop what’s happening? Probably not, but it’s my job to slow it down until the next generation can finish the fight.”

Negotiators are slated to meet again on Friday (9.21). “We’re hopeful that the company and the union can get together and find common ground and go back to making the beautiful hand crafted bourbon that we’re all so proud of,” said Royalty.

And, that pride in the bourbon is a key element to the union members. “We’re a family. This was not about money it was about principle for the next generation. We’re not ditching the company, we’re not bad mouthing the company. When we talk about the company, we also are talking about ourselves,” Royalty offered. “We’ve just had some trouble with middle management that’s come on over the past few years. We want to get back to work and having people visit us here.”

Photo courtesy The KY Initiative.

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