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Boutique whiskey, "eat shit" wages
Inside the fight for a first union contract at Stranahan's Distillery
Ben Ullrich had only been working at Stranahan’s Distillery for about six months when he realized he was getting stiffed. “They had brought on a couple of new folks who got hired at a higher rate” to do similar work, the distiller told Fingers in a recent phone interview, speaking after a shiftat the Denver, Colorado plant where the company’s high-end brown liquor is made. “Most of us were on a lower rate. That didn’t pump everybody up.”
Rather than get resentful towards their new, better-paid colleagues, Ullrich and his existing coworkers banded together in the summer of 2022, organizing a union with the United Food and Commercial Workers Local 7. The Stranahan’s Whiskey Union’s goals were straightforward and unremarkable: workers wanted fairer pay, better scheduling policies, and more of a say over how the boutique firm staffs and manages its workforce. Despite some mild managerial resistance (including a very janky PowerPoint deck featuring all the standard anti-union talking points) workers voted 12-1 in November 2022 in favor of union representation, and won a labor peacevote 10-1 soon thereafter. But now, almost six months into bargaining, SWU and Local 7 have found themselves stymied by what they say are unreasonable demands and refusal to compromise as they try to hammer out the first collective bargaining agreement with Colorado’s first microdistillery.
“We’ve started to get stonewalled,” Ullrich told me after a particularly unproductive bargaining session in late May. With no future bargaining dates yet scheduled, SWU’s efforts to secure an all-important first contract with Stranahan’s and its New Jersey parent company, Proximo Spirits are in danger of grinding to a halt.
Even casual observers of the groundswell of labor organizing at higher-profile food & drink firms like Starbucks over the past few years know that uncooperative bargaining postures and slow-walked negotiations are deliberate tactics that anti-union firms often deploy after failing to bust a drive outright. Whether that’s what executives at Stranahan’s and Proximo—owned by Beckmann family of Jose Cuervo fame, whose patriarch is worth $8.27 billion—are playing at is a question only they can answer. Neither firm replied to interview requests for this story.
Speaking on behalf of the other 14 membersof the fledgling union, Ullrich paints a picture of a company more concerned with its super-premium brand image than its workers’ work conditions and quality of life. As it was for their union brothers and sisters at Heaven Hill’s (much-larger, also-UFCW-repped) distillery in Bardstown, Kentucky when they struck 18 months ago, scheduling has been a major paint point for SWU workers. “We tried to lock in our schedules… we tried to lock in actual weekend days for ourselves, because we’re not even a 24/7 facility,” said Ullrich, who says the prospect of weekends off were a key reason he took a job at Stranahan’s in the first place. “Bargaining over that was when it really first started getting difficult.”
Though the union was able to eventually reach a tentative agreement (TA) granting existing employees weekends, it only managed to do so by allowing management to force any future production workers to waive protected weekends as a condition of employment.It’s a conspicuous carveout to Ullrich, who doesn’t even think the distillery is built to operate 24/7. Though rumors have circulated for years about Stranahan’s building a larger production facility, he’s not aware of any concrete expansion plans, either. “I think it's ideological. I just don't think they want to give up any power.”
Or money. Stranahan’s flagship whiskey retails for $63 MSRP; a bottle of its 10-year aged “Mountain Angel” varietal goes for $119. Yet the workers actually making the stuff are getting paid just a few bucks above Denver’s citywide minimum wage of $17.29 an hour. The lowest-paid member of the unit makes $18.62/hour; Ullrich, who worked in the craft brewing industry for half a decade before joining Stranahan’s in September 2021, makes $22/hour. At that rate, it’d take him nearly a full day of work just to take his wife on a date to Stranahan’s Whiskey & Cheese Pairing Experience later this month, tickets for which are listed at $71.50. In other words, it’s just not a lot of dough, especially considering the price of the product Ullrich and co. are handling. (Or, say, the median rent in the city, which now stands at $1,744 per month.) So workers were appalled at the last bargaining session when management responded to their comprehensive proposal with a “conceptual” counter that would bring the lowest paid workers up to $20.75/hour, and “lead operators” with as much as seven years’ tenure at Stranahan’s to just $26.75/hour. Ullrich himself would receive an additional $0.75 each hour worked under the firm’s counterproposal—a 3.4% raise that would be easily devoured by inflation.
“And then, when they were trying to make us eat shit like that, they didn't even come back with [concessions on] some of our soft economic items to try to spruce it up for us a little bit,” he said. The company is refusing to negotiate on union security, a position Ullrich suspects is informed by the free hand Proximo enjoys managing its decidedly not-boutique distilling facility in Lawrenceburg, Indiana, a right-to-work state. It also won’t guarantee set 401k or healthcare contributions, instead offering the union workers those benefits only “on the same terms and conditions as non-bargaining unit employees”—which of course, can be changed at any time. The company’s counters haven’t landed well with the union, says Ullrich. “Guys are pissed.”
It’s yet another showcase of the uphill battle workers face in this country when trying to exercise their federally protected right to organize on the job. SWU workers voted overwhelmingly to form a union, half a year ago, and are likely still months away from securing a first contract. Even after forcing and losing a union election, bosses can drag the bargaining process out almost indefinitely, and use the intervening time to try to convince workers that it’s futile to even bother. After the last session Ullrich said, management began holding “small group meetings” with unit employees and handing out printouts of the company’s counterproposals. With such a small union, though, Ullrich and his bargaining committee colleagues have stayed one step ahead of any effort to undermine them. “They’re trying to put pressure on the union, but it’s doing the exact opposite.”
Now, the union will mount some pressure of its own away from the bargaining table. Tomorrow, UFCW Local 7 is holding a protest outside Stranahan’s, where workers will call on the Rocky Mountain brand, its East Coast parent company, and the billionaire bosses in Mexico to bargain fairly with SWU for a contract. The goal, Ullrich told me via text after the action was announced earlier today, is to demonstrate to distillery management the unit’s solidarity and community support is implacable in the face of protracted bargaining and crummy counters. That way, he hopes, “we can return to the bargaining table and work toward a contract that provides a safe, democratic workplace.” Whether Stranahan’s management also hopes for that outcome, though, remains to be seen.
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Correction 6/1/23: A previous version of this article misstated the length of Ben Ullrich’s shift. It was eight hours, not 10. Fingers regrets the error.
This is a quirk of Colorado state law that requires unions to win two votes with a 75% majority each time in order to bargain for a union security clause; if they don’t hit that mark both times, shops are treated like those in full-blown right-to-work states. Some people think it’s the ideal labor law, others think it sucks ass. Dr. Allyson Brantley, Ph.D., talked a little bit on Taplines with me about how the Coors family and other conservatives started pressuring the state to enforce the law in the ‘70s to weaken labor. So, y’know, take from that what you will.
That said, Peter Macca, Stranahan’s director of distillery operations, did subscribe to Fingers roughly 90min after I first reached out to the brand. I invite him, or any Proximo executive, to respond to my requests for comment! I will update this story accordingly if/when they do.
In the early days of organizing, Ullrich and other pro-union workers made a conscious decision not to include Stranahan’s front-of-house employees and tour guides. Not that they don’t want those colleagues to enjoy the benefits of collective bargaining; they do. But having observed other craft beverage workers struggle to organize broader unions at their shops—notably at Nelson’s Greenbrier, where an early Stranahan’s organizer had previously worked—they opted to keep their efforts focused only on production. It’s an example of how organizing tactics can and must shift based on prior defeats.
This deal structure, where one group of workers is grandfathered into certain contractual rights at the expense of future workers, is known in the labor movement as “tiering.” It’s another common wedge that anti-union bosses use to sow tension, in hopes of later exacerbating that discord and parlaying it into a decertification vote down the line.