BARDSTOWN, Ky. — Craig Ruley wants to keep his weekends. A bottle filler at Heaven Hill Distillery in Bardstown, Ruley is one of 420 workers on strike following the rejection of a contract proposal labor leaders say would reduce worker pay and alter schedules.
“They want us to be off Tuesday and Wednesday, or Thursday and Friday,” said Ruley, a steward with the United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) Local 23D and a father of four. “It’s family-owned, but it’s not family-orientated."
The strike began at midnight on Saturday, just two days after 96% of workers rejected the company’s latest contract proposal.
In a statement, Heaven Hill said, “Since the company was founded, the support of our employees has been a source of pride and we have had productive conversations with the union for several months now regarding components of the contract.” The company said it will continue to work with the union “toward passage of this top-of-class workforce package.”
On Monday morning, dozens of striking workers gathered outside of the main Heaven Hill facility with signs reading, “Keep calm and union strong” and “When contract negotiations are on the rocks ... strike.”
They waved their signs at passing drivers, many of whom honked back, and yelled “scab,” a term describing someone who works for a company while its normal workers are on strike, at truckers entering the facility.
Bettye Jo Boone has worked at Heaven Hill for 30 years. She’s frustrated with the contract offer because of the time and effort she and her co-workers put in when the pandemic first hit.
“We’ve taken care of them, especially during the pandemic,” she said. “We pumped bourbon out of here like Niagara Falls.”
“We made them millions,” Boone said. “They said they would take care of us when contract time came. They have not.”
In a press release, Matt Aubrey, president of UFCW Local 23D, said, “Healthcare price hikes that reduce take-home pay, cuts to overtime, and drastic scheduling changes are no way to recognize the incredible service of these Kentucky essential workers, but that is exactly what Heaven Hill is trying to do with this contract.”
He also cited the company’s recent financial success, which allowed it to recently open the Heaven Hill Bourbon Experience, a visitor center that underwent a $19 million upgrade. The company has also recently spent $106 million on plant and warehouse upgrades.
Katie Gaffney, who works in shipping at the distillery, pointed to the nearby visitor center Monday as she lamented the company’s low pay.
“Look what they have done — spent millions,” she said.
"It’s about respect," Ruley added. "You can look around and see the company's growing. We want the company to grow, but we want to grow with the company."
With workers planning to continue their strike as Bardstown hosts the Kentucky Bourbon Festival this weekend, Boone suggested one way for bourbon lovers to show their support. “Don’t buy Heaven Hill products until they give us a decent contract," she said.