Kentucky Bourbon On Strike: The State of US Labor

by Jim Reed

Heaven Hill Visitor Center, Bardstown, KY.

To many in the US, Kentucky is one of the last places some might think of to be part of the nation’s growing unrest and the young new labor movement. But between its incredibly rich labor history in Harlan County and the coal wars, and the various strikes that have taken place, its moniker as a victim of vicious “right-to-work” legislation, which is designed to choke unions financially, has not stopped it from being at the heart of the new labor struggle as the contradictions within the imperial core continue to exacerbate growing unrest. The United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) Local 23D officially went on strike in September. For those who are not familiar, this local presides over the Heaven Hill bourbon distillery, bourbon being one of Kentucky’s signature exports. Heaven Hill in particular is a special case as they distill multiple different brands, from Elijah Craig to their own label, to other liquors such as Hypnotiq. The company represents a microcosm of the consolidation of capital, as they made a major acquisition of Black Velvet Whiskies in 2019, “a visitor center that underwent a $19 million upgrade,” as well as “$106 million on plant and warehouse upgrades” (Raymond). As to be expected, however, in the search for long-term gains this expansion inevitably led to a cut in short-term profit, and they elected to compensate for this by increasing the exploitation of their workers.

According to the workers, the situation has been a few years in the making. The last contract was inadequate, with a small bonus in place of a raise despite Heaven Hill continuing its expansion. The workers were also traumatized during COVID-19; not only did they not receive any assistance from Heaven Hill while surviving on what the federal government distributed (despite having to work through the whole pandemic), an associate actually died on the clock. “He was given 6 minutes of a moment of silence, 2 minutes for each shift,” a striker told me. The last straw came from their latest contract. Despite a boom in revenue, with Heaven Hill reporting $500 million in revenue, (Inc Fact), and the expansions as previously stated, the latest contract offered capped overtime pay while limiting days off, a combination that would dramatically expand Heaven Hill’s coffers while working employees to the bone. These terms were enough to cause 96% of the union to authorize a strike.

Local organizations had the opportunity to discuss with the rank-and-file. Some of these workers had been there going on 20, 40, 60 years. One striker even said that they were hoping to retire next year. They felt like they did not have a choice but to strike after this new contract was presented to them. “This used to be a fun place to work,” another striker said. Between US flags being waved and rhetoric that this was an “attack on the middle class,” as multiple strikers had said in my time there, it was very clear that these workers were the typical embodiment of what people think of when they think of the rural US. They would most likely be written off by ultra-left circles, but nonetheless were experiencing the inevitable consequences of the class struggle. Whether the strikers understood that fact or not, Heaven Hill had put them in a position where they came face to face with the realities of their own exploitation.

There are some very important takeaways from this turn of events, as Comrade Lenin elaborates on in Chapter 2 of What is to Be Done?, in reference to strikes that occurred in the 1890s that he described as “nothing more nor less than consciousness in its embryonic form.” He described how the workers were losing faith in the system, which is very apt in the case of Heaven Hill Distillery as workers who were there for decades often mentioned their nostalgia of how things used to be. However, the most important thing to note follows this. Lenin states:

“Taken by themselves, these strikes were simply trade union struggles, not yet Social Democratic struggles. They marked the awakening antagonisms between workers and employers; but the workers were not, and could not be, conscious of the irreconcilable antagonisms of their interests to the whole of the modern political and social system, i.e., theirs was not yet Social-Democratic consciousness.”

Furthermore, Comrade Lenin states, “The history of all countries shows that the working class, exclusively by its own effort, is able to develop only trade union consciousness.” It was very clear that Comrade Lenin was correct in this regard: that the fight of these strikers alone would not and could not, as history has shown, possibly raise the consciousness of these workers to class consciousness, regardless of the scale or intensity of the strike. However, this should not be taken as a reason to reject these strikers within the context of their role in the liberation of the working class, only that their struggle has not yet been incorporated into the larger political-economic struggle that creates the very contradictions they are facing.

In our movement, the term “labor lieutenant” comes up to describe reactionary union leadership used to disguise measly concessions as victories in service of the employers. Comrade William Z. Foster warns of their presence in Toward Soviet America, demonstrating that this is a very old and pervasive problem in the US labor movement, as the little that remains of its union infrastructure is largely dominated by reactionary leadership, despite growing for the first time in nearly half a century. This was highlighted on another occasion where a local organization, Movement For Peoples’ Democracy, that had been operating during the course of the strike, had been red-baited, (accused of being a communist organization.) “That’s the communist I’ve been talking about,” the leader of the hired muscle had said, citing no evidence that this person, who was not representing a communist organization, was such. This led to the volunteer being escorted out by Heaven Hill’s hired muscle, where he managed to overhear a brief exchange between the strike-leadership and the head of the company security saying something along the lines of, “I told you I would take care of the…”

This implies that a deal had been made to push alleged communists out of the strike, a collaboration between the company and the union leadership. These reactionary tendencies were reflected in how the strike ended, with the city paving the way for strike-breakers to be hired, local law enforcement making the strike less effective, the contract being much less than expected despite massive profits, and nonetheless, UFCW leadership stating how much they wished to maintain a positive relationship with Heaven Hill, despite Heaven Hill clearly leveraging the state and its own hired muscle to weaken the strike.

What should we as communists take away from this experience? In the words of Comrade Stalin:

“Theory is the experience of the working-class movement in all countries taken in its general aspect. Of course, theory becomes purposeless if it is not connected with revolutionary practice, just as practice gropes in the dark if its path is not illuminated by revolutionary theory.”

Thus, there is no failure that could have come from the practice of engaging with workers in the primordial stage of consciousness. It gave the workers, and in turn, the communists who have the opportunity to review the events as they have unfolded, invaluable information, from the petty-bourgeois programming of their associations of the “middle-class,” to their reactionary union leadership. With the combined theory developed over history and the application of it to our material conditions we can properly conduct more effective practice in the future, with new materials to distribute, engaging in more constructive ways, identifying militant rank-and-file, and avoiding stool-pigeons, labor lieutenants, and what are effectively the Pinkertons of the 20th century, knowing full well that they will leverage red-scare attitudes to attack and manipulate the weak-willed among them. We should be ready – in the event that we are met with these claims – to defend socialism, as to deny it will not save us. Denying will only leave the rank-and-file vulnerable.

To counter-attack red-baiting, we must call it as it is: a tool of the bosses to sow distrust among the workers, as well as their most radical elements, and to push them into acting against their own best interests. By doing so, we take accusations, even if unbeknownst to the accusers it turns out to be true, we call their bluff and take a tactic to sow division between the workers and the left, into a condemnation of the strong arm of the bosses and reactionary leadership that may collaborate with them. I invite everyone flying the red banner to use this analysis as a guide to their own practice as tensions are raised across the nation so that we can drive out reactionary union leadership and agitate within the unions.

Authors note: This document has been a living ideological analysis for the past few months, and since its completion, there has been an update. On October 25th, 2021, the UFCW announced the end of the strike. (UFCW.org) The article says that key provisions had been won but once broken down, it is incredibly clear that the strikers didn’t receive a strong contract. First and foremost, the increase in pay only comes out to a potential of $.62 per year, which hardly addresses the economic inflation currently plaguing the economy, which I could only speculate Heaven Hill will take advantage of to increase profits. The most important provision, however, was overtime. They only managed to negotiate to maintain the overtime expectations from their last contract, which multiple strikers had specifically stated was reason enough to have gone on strike over their last contract. To further stress how important these wins were, the majority of union workers voted against this contract as well, with the only reason it passed being that it needed as little as 34% in favor to pass it through. (Wave3.com) It is of my firm belief that the labor lieutenants prevented the strike from being more successful, and only reinforces the necessity of ideologically trained radical elements to combat the reactionary leadership that is actively driving the most militant, pro-labor forces away from the new wave of labor.

I invite anyone reading this to review our Red Patriot article, “The Backbone of a Leninist Organization: Workplace Cells,” for more information on how to effectively agitate within our own workplaces. Avanti Popolo!

References

Inc Fact. “HEAVEN HILL DISTILLERIES Revenue, Growth & Competitor Profile.” Inc Fact, 2021, https://incfact.com/company/heavenhilldistilleries-bardstown-ky/. Accessed 15 10 2021.

Lenin, Vladimir I. Lenin’s Collected Works. vol. 5, Moscow, Foreign Languages Publishing House, 1961. marxists.org. Accessed 15 10 2021.

Raymond, Adam K. “https://spectrumnews1.com/ky/louisville/news/2021/09/13/heaven-hill-distillery-workers-strike-over-new-contract.” Spectrum News 1, 13 09 2021, https://spectrumnews1.com/ky/louisville/news/2021/09/13/heaven-hill-distillery-workers-strike-over-new-contract. Accessed 15 10 2021.

Stalin, Joseph V. The Foundations of Leninism. Moscow, Foreign Languages Publishing House, 1953. Marxists.org, https://www.marxists.org/reference/archive/stalin/works/1924/foundations-leninism/ch03.htm. Accessed 15 10 2021.

“Heaven Hill Workers Vote to End Six-Week-Long Kentucky Bourbon Strike, New Contract Preserves Healthcare and Overtime Pay.” The United Food & Commercial Workers International Union, 25 Oct. 2021, https://www.ufcw.org/heaven-hill-workers-vote-to-end-six-week-long-kentucky-bourbon-strike-new-contract-preserves-healthcare-and-overtime-pay/.

Dobson, Dustin Vogt and James. “Heaven Hill Workers Vote to End Six-Week Strike.” Https://Www.wave3.Com, https://www.wave3.com/2021/10/23/heaven-hill-workers-vote-end-six-week-strike/. 

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