The recent week-long strike at two Jim Beam facilities in Kentucky highlights a very interesting tension in the current workplace. Workers at the Boston and Clermont, Kentucky facilities overwhelmingly rejected the second contract proposal in two weeks, stepping out on strike on October 15, 2016. The second contract proposal included “substantial wage increases” for already very well-paid employees, which left management at a quandary as to why the workers voted to strike. The workers, for their part, wanted a guarantee that the company would hire more full-time workers and stop relying as heavily on temporary workers, among other complaints with the contract proposal. The crux of their complaint was that they felt that they had to work too much and it was interfering with work-life balance.
Bourbon production, until the recent boom, had traditionally followed a more seasonal production pattern and the company had been hesitant to hire full-time workers during the busy production periods, as they did not want to have to lay the workers off when production inevitably slowed. However, with the popularity of bourbon at an all-time high, the production schedule for the past two to three years remained consistently high. The combination of the company’s reluctance to hire more full time workers and the consistently high demand for bourbon resulted in the full-time workers being compelled to take on more overtime hours to keep up with the demand. Management was surprised by the vote to strike because workers at the two facilities are paid base hourly rates of up to more than three times the Kentucky minimum wage of $7.25 per hour. At time and a half for all hours worked in excess of forty, those employees were enjoying a significant and sustained spike in their annual earnings. Union officials acknowledged that the employees knew that they were well-paid; however, they felt that the company had neglected to hire enough full-time, regular employees to keep up with production demands in the now $3 billion business of bourbon production. (more…)