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Woodford Reserve skewed union vote, judge rules

A federal judge with the National Labor Relations Board found that Kentucky Bourbon brand Woodford Reserve handed out pay rises, free bottles of whiskey and extra holiday dates ahead of a workers’ vote to unionise.

On Monday 8 April Judge Andrew S. Gollin ruled that Woodford Reserve had “undermined” unionisation efforts by dishing out sweeteners to its employees ahead of an official vote to unionise.

The perks, which included additional annual leave, pay increases and free bottles of whiskey, were timed to coincide with the vote in 2022, with Gollin concluding that the intention was to influence the outcome of that vote.

Woodford Reserve, owned by parent company Brown-Forman, claims the offerings were unrelated to the union activity, and that the pay rises and extra holiday were the result of a change in human resources leadership.

However, Gollin ruled that: “Overall, the timing and circumstances surrounding these actions are more than sufficient to infer unlawful motivation.”

The purpose of the vote to unionise was to secure a higher wage for employees, but one week before the vote took place Woodford Reserve told staff they would receive an increase of US$4 per hour across the board.

Each production employee was also gifted a bottle of Woodford Reserve Double Oaked, worth around US$30.

Ultimately, the attempt to unionise failed with many employees deciding to vote against a strike in the wake of their wages having risen.

A statement issued by Joe Lance, vice president for Teamsters Local 651 said that this was a “clear-cut example of unlawful interference in what should have been a free and fair election.”

He added: “We hope [the ruling] serves as a deterrent to other employers, who will hopefully think twice before they violate federal labour laws.”

Teamsters efforts

In March 2024, following months of negotiation, Teamsters members voted overwhelmingly in favour of a five-year contract offered by AB InBev. Its terms will see staff at 12 of the company’s US breweries receive a wage increase of US$8 per hour (including a US$4 per hour raise in the first year), along with a US$2,500 ratification bonus for every member, an end to two-tier health care, increased vacation, and the restoration of retirement benefits for active and retired Teamsters members.

Had negotiations not been successful, strike action would have been taken by the 5,000 Teamsters members working with the Budweiser, Stella Artois and Hoegaarden brands.

Teamsters general president Sean M. O’Brien said of the ratification: “In ratifying a strong new contract at Anheuser-Busch, Teamsters have clawed back concessions from earlier agreements, protected retirees and invested in their pensions, and will be taking home the higher wages we’ve fought for.

“It’s a significant victory for brewery workers in the United States.”


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