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Woodford Reserve's Unionization Efforts Undermined By Company Tactics

In this photo taken on April 8, 2009, guide Dave Salyers describes the bourbon making process to a group touring the Woodford Reserve distillery in Versailles, Ky. The Kentucky distillery has b

Woodford Reserve, a prominent bourbon maker based in Kentucky, has been found to have undermined unionization efforts at its distillery by offering pay raises, relaxing vacation policies, and distributing bottles of whiskey to workers before a unionization vote. A federal judge ruled that these actions were timed to influence the outcome of the unionization vote, leading to unfair labor practices in violation of the National Labor Relations Act.

The 2022 unionization effort at Woodford Reserve failed, but the judge set aside the election results and ordered the company to recognize and bargain with a local Teamsters union. Woodford Reserve, which is part of Brown-Forman Corp., based in Louisville, Kentucky, is currently reviewing the ruling and considering its next steps.

This ruling is significant as it marks the second administrative law judge bargaining order since the NLRB set a new framework for union elections last year. The judge's decision was supported by the Teamsters union, with the vice president stating that it was a clear example of unlawful interference in what should have been a free and fair election.

Woodford Reserve's union-organizing campaign began in August 2022, with workers seeking higher wages. The company responded by offering a $4 per hour pay raise to employees just before the election, leading to a decrease in union support among workers. Additionally, changes to merit raise and vacation policies were implemented, along with the distribution of bottles of whiskey to production employees.

Despite the company's claims that these actions were for legitimate business reasons unrelated to the union campaign, the judge ruled that they were intended to undermine support for unionization. The judge highlighted that the pay raise led to a decline in union backing among employees and that the whiskey giveaway was meant to influence the vote.

Episodes of labor unrest have been observed in Kentucky's bourbon industry in recent years, with strikes involving major producers such as Jim Beam, Four Roses, and Heaven Hill. The ruling against Woodford Reserve serves as a reminder of the importance of upholding federal labor laws and ensuring fair labor practices in the industry.

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