You know how earlier this year, Heaven Hill workers went on a six-week strike against their employer, which is one of the largest bourbon distilleries in Kentucky, and therefore the world? Well, about 2.5 hours to the south, across the Tennessee state line, workers at a very small whiskey distillery with a very big corporate overlord took notice. Here’s the deal.
Today on The Fingers Podcast I’ve got an interview with Dylan Lancaster, a tour guide and organizer at Nelson’s Green Brier Distillery in Nashville, Tennessee. Last week, Dylan and around 35 of his coworkers went public with a union drive at their workplace, a historic Nashville whiskey maker that in 2019 was acquired by Constellation Brands, the major beverage conglomerate behind brands like Corona, Mondavi, Casa Noble, and many more.
The Nelson’s Green Brier employees’ grievances are pretty familiar: low pay, bad working conditions, and unaffordable and/or inaccessible healthcare. But the way they’ve decided to address them—by forming a union with the United Food and Commercial Workers—is less so in Tennessee, a right-to-work state with one of the lowest labor union densities in the country. “Not only are we fighting a giant, multi-billion dollar corporation, but we're also doing it within a state that is not kind to unions or to workers more broadly,” Lancaster told The Fingers Podcast. “It's a bit of a David versus Goliath situation.”
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In our interview, Dylan and I discussed why he and his colleagues decided to form the United Distillery Workers of Tennessee. They believe it’s the first distillery union in the Volunteer State, and they’re petitioning Constellation to voluntarily recognize the union. We got into the challenges of organizing quietly in a small shop, the perils of the American healthcare system for rank-and-file workers, and how the United Distillery Workers are hoping for good-faith treatment from their booze-biz bosses, while also bracing for the union-busting campaign that may or may not come.
Dylan also told me that part of their inspiration for the drive was seeing Heaven Hill’s workers—represented by the same union, UFCW—strike their bosses over healthcare and overtime provisions. Comparing the conditions, and wages, across state lines convinced Nelson’s Green Brier workers that collective bargaining was the way to go. “They were hiring people off the street for $21.50 an hour, when our lead bottler is making just under $20,” Dylan told me, comparing the wages Heaven Hill offered scabs to those that his colleagues earn at Nelson’s Green Brier. “Those are things we definitely took into account.”
Editor’s note: This interview was conducted via video call on 12/13/21. Neither Nelson’s Green Brier nor Constellation responded to Fingers’ requests for comment. The below transcript has been edited and condensed. The full-length interview is available on The Fingers Podcast.
Meet Dylan Lancaster, worker & organizer at Nelson's Green Briar Distillery
Dave Infante, Fingers: OK, Dylan Lancaster! Welcome to The Fingers Podcast. How you doing, man?
Dylan Lancaster, Nelson’s Green Brier Distillery/United Distillery Workers of Tennessee: I'm doing fantastic. How are you?
Doing well, man. You’re in Nashville, and you and your your colleagues made a little bit of news last week. What's going on in Nashville?
I work at Nelson's Green Brier Distillery in Nashville, who produce Belle Meade bourbon and Nelson's Green Brier Tennessee whiskey. Me and a majority of my co-workers got together and we are in the process of forming a union with the United Food and Commercial Workers Local 1995. On Friday, we filed for recognition with our corporate parent company, Constellation Brands, who owns Nelson's Green Brier. So we made a bit of a splash on Friday. So it's been pretty exciting.
As someone who's organized in the past, the day you go public is kind of one of the most the brightest spots in the entire campaign. What was the reception like in the community?
We actually had a pretty fantastic launch day. Morale was very high at the distillery. Some of my coworkers joked that they've never seen me interact with customers quite [so] enthusiastically in a long time. On on social media, we had an Action Network campaign that went live as soon as we filed; we did that in collaboration with the Central Labor Council of Middle Tennessee, who have a pretty extensive email list. I think something like 6,000 people, [an email] went out live to all of their followers. And then we had social media push as well on our social media. As of the recording, I think we're somewhere in the ballpark of 8,000 emails sent to higher-ups within Constellation, the CEO, the executive board of directors, all the way down to our direct supervisors at the distillery.
The company proved that it could pay us more, but then decided that they were not willing to do that.
So you’re asking people to sign a petition calling on Constellation Brands to voluntarily recognize your union. The best case scenario is Constellation Brands wakes up tomorrow and says, These workers at Nelson's Green Brier have the right to organize, we respect that they've made a decision here, so we're going to voluntarily recognize the union and meet them at the bargaining table. Some companies do actually take that route. But if they choose not to voluntarily recognize the union, what's your understanding of what happens at that point?
Then they are going to take it to an election, all we need to win the election is a simple majority of 50% [of ballots cast by eligible workers] plus one vote. So in between the day that we filed, which is Friday, the 10th of December, and whenever the election will happen, which is sometime within the next 40 days, I believe, the company is going to try to single out people and try to get votes to beat us at the election. [This] is when typically union busters are hired in outside firms, to help sway workers who have signed authorization cards into voting against the union. There was actually one branch that did organize, which was very exciting. So solidarity to the Starbucks workers, but you might know better than I but I think there was two other stores that voted on the same day and lost their elections.
So how big is the proposed bargaining unit that you guys have organized down there?
It's a pretty small operation. I think there's some something in the ballpark of 35 to 36 eligible workers to join the union. 80% of them have signed authorization cards.
That’s an overwhelming majority.
Yeah, and you only need a third to file [for union recognition.] So we did our due diligence there. Frankly, it was a pretty easy conversation… People were pretty down and ready to join up and to try and work together to increase wages and benefits. We have been, as a lot of places have been, short on staff. And so there's been a lot of burnout, a lot of long weeks and not a lot of breathing room in between shifts. So that's something that has been wearing on a lot of these workers as well.
Something that's unique about this particular struggle is we could be the first unionized distillery in the state of Tennessee. And as I'm sure a lot of your listeners know, Tennessee is a “right to work” state, and they have probably the most draconian labor laws in the U.S. Or at least up there. [Tennessee must] be one of the worst on labor. So not only are we fighting a giant, multi-billion dollar corporation, but we're also doing it within a state that is not kind to unions or to workers more broadly. So it's a bit of a David versus Goliath situation.
I'm recording this podcast from South Carolina… I don't know which state is worse for labor, but they're both pretty bad. Being in the South, where unions have traditionally struggled, what was your experience with organized labor? How much did you know what you were getting into, before starting this?
I actually grew up in Michigan. So I come from strong labor state. But no one in my family actually ever worked for a union. I've never worked for a union. And it wasn't until I moved to Nashville and got involved with the Democratic Socialists of America, and started doing organizing through them and learning more about unions and becoming friends with union organizer, I learned a little bit more of the nuts and bolts. The conversations that I had with a lot of my co-workers, there was a lot of mystification around unions and what they do. So I had to really study up to answer a lot of those questions. I was pretty surprised. People just didn't know generally what unions did. And it wasn't ‘til after we had those conversations that it just kind of clicked and it was like, Why would we not do this?
Totally. I grew up in New Jersey, and there's certainly a union presence there, but I wasn't exposed to it as a kid either. I didn't come from a union family or anything. So when I first started organizing, I had a similar experience, which is like… I felt like I was “unlearning” a lot of what I learned in like school from like the history books. There's very little labor history taught, and it's made to feel kind of like ancient history as though unions aren't relevant anymore.
Exactly. Yeah, a lot of deprogramming needs to happen.
There's money going somewhere, but not into the pockets of the people who are producing the products and creating the profits.
So tell me how this thing came together. What are some of the major grievances that you guys organized around as you were putting together this drive?
So during the beginning of the pandemic, they actually paid the front of house workers to shelter at home. So they bumped up our hourly rate, because a lot of our income is tipped. The house receives tips from the people coming into the distillery. I'm a tour guide, so I'm the person that's going over production, the history of our distillery, doing guided tastings—and before the pandemic, walking people through the facility, explaining how everything works. Those workers, the front of house, were sent home and paid a little bit more to make up for the lack of tips that they weren’t getting. About three months or four months [later], they brought us back, before vaccines, and everyone's hourly rate went down to what it was before the pandemic. That was a big sticking point for a lot of folks. The company proved that it could pay us more, but then decided when the rubber meets the road and we actually needed to come back, that they were not willing to do that.
And a lot of the people that were coming to the distillery before vaccines were not the most thoughtful in terms of wearing masks, [maintaining] social distances, being respectful of the health and safety of [the staff.] We got a lot of people that were getting mad about wearing masks, getting adversarial, people who are getting mad at us that we weren't taking them in the barrel warehouse, or on the production floor, showing them the still. So it actually made our job harder, and we're getting paid less, because—surprise, surprise—those types of people are not the best tippers in the world.
Yeah, that Venn diagram is basically just a circle.
We brought these grievances to Constellation, to our direct managers, to HR, and nothing changed. We got a minor raise, but definitely not enough to offset any of these, these problems. Constellation, is a $30 to $40 billion1 corporation… this is a company that absolutely can provide for these workers. Meanwhile, in the face of being told they can’t give us raises, they are doing a $10 to $15 million build-out on our distillery. And as of last week, it was announced that Constellation is also spending $1.3 billion to build a new brewery in Mexico. So where's that money going? It seems like there's a large flow of money going somewhere, but it's not going into the pockets of the people who are producing the products, and who are creating those profits for that multinational, multi-billion dollar corporation.
So wages were a big point of organizing. And it also sounds like to some of the pandemic working conditions were themselves point of friction that you guys organized. Were there are others?
Yeah. So the only workers that are offered, or that can buy into the healthcare that the corporation provides are full-time [workers.] So I mentioned that we had a huge labor shortage, and all of the part-time people were working full-time hours, but not receiving healthcare. I was offered a full-time position, which I took. It did not come with a pay raise, and the company only pays for 50% of our healthcare. So effectively, I'm actually making less money as a full-time employee than I was as a part-time person, because 50% of my healthcare is coming out of my my paycheck. That's a grievance that I expressed to both corporate HR and my direct supervisors. And I just kind of got a shrug of the shoulders. A lot of my other coworkers who are part-time, they would like to have healthcare, especially during a global pandemic.
I hope that Constellation will come to the negotiating table in good faith, but we're prepared to fight.
The healthcare that they do provide, ironically, the plan that I'm on is called the Bind plan, which if you ask me is a little on the nose.
Right. If you filed a novel with that detail in it, your editor would kick it back, because it’s just a little too obvious.
Yeah, exactly. I'm obviously speaking from a front of house perspective, but the bottlers during the entire pandemic, they were they're crushing all of their quotas, breaking records, and doing all that stuff. And not once were they able to stay home. Some of [them] were immunocompromised, some have issues and they need that healthcare. One of my coworkers is diabetic, so they need that health care to afford insulin. Without it they would be absolutely screwed, [because] the healthcare system in the United States is absolutely absurd.
Our distillers are getting paid way below the industry standards. When I started looking into the UFCW… well, part of the reason we started working with the UFCW is because our colleagues at the Heaven Hill Distillery up in Bardstown [Kentucky] went on strike starting in September, and some of their grievances were similar. They were doing forced overtime, they were getting healthcare benefits cut during the pandemic. Heaven Hill had just [done] a multi-million dollar build-out of their Visitor Center.
Yeah, it was like a $19-million expansion of their visitor center, which by all accounts is gorgeous.
It is stunning. But that's a very similar situation to where we found ourselves, in and we're like, Well, they’re on strike, and we’re not. I went on to [Heaven Hill’s] website to see what they were hiring for on their bottling line [to try to oreplace those workers were on strike.] They were hiring people off the street for $21.50 an hour, when our lead bottler is making just under $20. Bardstown, Kentucky is a beautiful place to live, but it has a much lower cost of living than a city like Nashville, where we are. So those are things that we definitely took into account…. that was another sticking point for workers, seeing their colleagues getting paid astronomically higher wages [at other distilleries.] And the common denominator was the fact that [those workers] were represented by a union.
So we talked a little bit about the reception from the community, and on social media. What has the reception been like within the distillery itself?
The workers have been ecstatic. Management, not so much. It was a pretty historic blindside, because it is a very small facility, a very close knit group of people. We were able to get all those cards signed and filed without anyone really finding out in management. Based on what little they've said to us, they feel hurt. They think that this is about them, and I just want to go on the record and say it is not. We have no bad blood or ill will [towards] the supervisors and some of the managers that work at the distillery, and I just want the record to reflect that.
Some people are taking it very personally. It's not about them. It's about the workers, and it's about our grievances with Constellation.
Obviously, everyone goes into a drive with the best intentions, hoping for voluntary recognition. How likely do you think that is, in this case?
I think the company has ‘til right before Christmas to recognize us. A lot of these supervisors and managers, just keep saying that their doors open, that they're listening, and that they want to support us and make it right. And I just want to say to them: the one way to make it right is to recognize the union. So I'm hopeful. But I know that there has been at least one union-busting firm that is cold called the distillery since Friday.
I don't think it's going to work out for the corporation at this particular shop.
Like an ambulance-chaser but for union-busting.
I have their website pulled up right here. It's Midwest Management Consultants, Incorporated.
Oh god. It’s always the ones that have the most boring names that turn out to be the most evil.
Absolutely. So we'll see what happens. I hope that Constellation will come to the negotiating table in good faith. But you know, like I've said previously, we're prepared to fight and I have every confidence that we will win an election if it comes to that.
We don’t know what Constellation will do, but we know typically, what happens when companies decide to fight a union. There's a standard union-busting playbook. How are you and your coworkers preparing for that?
Yeah, the playbook is is well-known, and pretty well-worn. We have been doing meetings and talking about what to expect. We've also been very good about doing one-on-ones with one another, checking in making sure that people are doing okay, and how they feel about what we're doing. So far, morale is very high, people are very fired up, and we know everything that they're going to possibly throw at us. Everyone's been prepared for the captive-audience meetings, for all the lines about how the union’s bad actually, the union’s greedy… they're probably going to try and find all the members of the local and find their salaries to try to tell us that, they're taking your dues [as compensation.] Which is ironic, coming from a company that is run by multi-billionaires.
Like I said, I'm feel very confident. It's, it's a well-worn playbook, and I don't think it's going to work out for the corporation at this particular shop.
You mentioned at the beginning of this episode, that if you guys are successful in winning your union, that would make you Nelson's Green Brier the first unionized workforce in any Tennessee distillery. What's the significance of that to you?
That's a huge driving force. Being in a state that is not very kind to workers, not very kind to unions, we're hoping that if we're successful here—or when we're successful here, I should say—that we are going to open the door for other workers to have a higher standard of living. I think it's pretty cool to be on the forefront. But ultimately, we just want everyone to have the ability to collectively bargain with their coworkers and have a stronger, better-paid workforce.
What can people who want to support your drive do? You’re not calling for a boycott, correct? What are you asking for instead?
We're not calling a boycott or anything like that. We're not trying to be adversarial with the company, we are just asking them to bargain in good faith, we are asking them to voluntarily recognize this union. In order for us to have a voice, we have the fortune of speaking to people like you talking to local press, and trying to garner public support to help the company realize that recognition is the the best thing for the workers, and the best thing for the company. But we're calling on customers, supporters and folks to send emails through our Action Network campaign, you can send an email to the higher-ups at Constellation, politely asking them to voluntarily recognize the union and Nelson's Green Brier. That's probably the most important thing you can do at this step.
We’re talking on one of your rare days off. What are you going to do with the rest of your day off?
We're just going to try to try to relax a little bit, but also just keep checking in with the coworkers. I've been texting a lot of people who are on-site today, trying to get a general vibe for what's going on there. You know, because even though I do thankfully have a day off, I am trying make sure that everyone's ready to go in terms of what comes next from Constellation. I was told that all of the managers and supervisors are off-site today for a last-minute training.I can only imagine what that's about. So I’m just trying to stay ahead of the head of the curve here.
Congratulations again on going public with the drive.
Thanks for having me and thanks for helping amplify the cause. Solidarity forever.
Dylan Lancaster is a tour guide at Nelson’s Green Brier Distillery in Nashville, Tennessee. He and his coworkers are organizing to become the first unionized distillery in the state. You can follow United Distillery Workers of Tennessee on Twitter and Instagram, or learn more about their union drive here.
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Constellation’s market capitalization at publication is $44.39B.